A New Deal for Artists in the 21st Century

black-and-white photo of muralists WPA artists creating a mural at the World's Fair, circa 1939. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Rachel Chanoff, founding director of Artists At Work, speaks to us about forging a new model for artist-driven community collaborations and why we need artists as problem solvers.

In 1935, amid the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project put artists to work in the service of the public good and economic recovery. Painter Diego Rivera created murals, sculptor Augusta Savage launched the Harlem Community Artist Center, and graphic artists designed posters for the National Park Service and Federal Theater Project productions. With a federal investment of $35 million, artworks and other work produced under the Federal Art Project are celebrated as iconic and historically significant in forging a distinctly American style of art making.  

In 2020, in response to pandemic-related loss of income for filmmakers, dancers, theatrical and visual artists, poets, and musicians, that same New Deal-era progressivism inspired a wave of social enterprise funding and job-creation initiatives. Among these is Artists At Work (AAW), launched by The Office Performing Arts + Film, a New York and London-based cultural production company. 

“Artists are workers and have a work product that’s crucial to the health of their communities.”

dancers in costumeTia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, which elevates creativity and ancestral knowledge through the arts in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, is hosting artist Erick Iniguez. Photo by Giovanni Solis. Courtesy of Tia Chucha.

What is unique about AAW’s structure?  
We put the artists on our payroll at a living wage with benefits for up to a year. They’re paid for two things: to make beautiful art and to be embedded in a social impact initiative. Not only are artists the messengers who help us make meaning of the world, they have the most extraordinary ability to bring creative thinking to a problem and help solve that problem.  

The cultural sphere understands that artists are essential to thriving communities, but do you think the broader public needs convincing? 
Yes, for sure. What has gotten us through the pandemic? Streaming movies, reading books. Artists move us through the darkness in such obvious ways, but many people think art is a luxury. They say, “let artists go beg for grants.” So, changing the whole conversation is a big part of what we’re trying to do. 

Rachel Chanoff

In the 1930s, as part of the New Deal, workers were hired
to build physical infrastructure like roads and bridges. Is AAW building social or cultural infrastructure for the 21st century? 

It’s more social, but it’s hard to tease out what’s social and what’s cultural. In our early conversations with organizations in the Delta, they said, “we’re cultural hubs, but we’re also social service providers.” There is no daylight between those two things. It’s been an education for us in how the organizations define themselves. 

Is there a plan to bring the program to additional regions? 
It’s open ended, depending on funding. We’d love AAW to
be in all 50 states. But we’re focused on making it sustainable and then see where things go, where else this could be a useful tool. There’s so much culture and activism going on in Northern California, and we’ve been speaking with various funders in Colorado.

Not all artists might consider making social change in communities part of their role. 
Except I think that artists who are not necessarily involved in social change are still helping us move forward as human beings. 

What have you learned in the short time since launching AAW? 
With these projects, which have been so compelling, we are seeing that a year is not long enough. To connect with your social impact initiative and earn the trust of the constituents, a year is too short, so we’re working on that.

“Artists move us through the darkness in such obvious ways, but many people think art is a luxury.”

community members collaborating in palceSipp Culture in Utica, MS is hosting artists Monica Hill and daniel johnson. Photo by Griff Griffin. Courtesy of Sipp Culture Archives.

Income insecurity was an issue for artists long before the pandemic. Would The Office have launched AAW without COVID?  
Our mission is to leverage culture for social impact, which can mean a thousand different things, though I don’t think we would have done this if it wasn’t for COVID, no. But did the projects address things that only had to do with COVID? Not at all. 

The COVID crisis made us ask, “are we doing everything we can to really get into the community and make positive change there?” And we weren’t necessarily doing that. Instead of bringing people to the art, [now] we bring art to the people in a way that it really impacts the fabric of their daily lives.  

What are some of AAWs strategies to reshape the arts ecosystem in a post-pandemic world? 
We’re prioritizing culture hubs that are run by people of color. We also want to help build the pipeline of producers, curators, and future board members, because if you don’t change the decision-makers, nothing is going to change. 

Are you optimistic that changes will take hold? 
I am recklessly optimistic. It’s become clear to me that these things have taken hold. They’re not as codified and they’re not as supported. But there are artists who are doing work in their communities all the time. Artists contribute to society, and they’re doing it whether people are supporting them or not.