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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Deal for the Arts

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  The economic validity of culture-led regeneration has been at the heart of a polemical debate in recent years, especially in Europe, where municipal authorities in cities such as London, Bilbao, Rotterdam and Dublin have invested in their cultural infrastructure to drive urban regeneration. American cities, too, are seeing the benefits of branding themselves as creative centers: We need only to look at the fact that it’s an art museum that has become Milwaukee’s defining landmark.

  However, many argue that such investment is geared more toward wooing the middle classes than creating a more socially inclusive city. They have a point. But is this ultimately well-intentioned policy to blame? Or is the problem that the arts institutions have distanced themselves from the pressing issues of our day and instead have become centers toward which the polite and highbrow segments of society gravitate.

  An initiative founded in one of the direst periods of American history—the Great Depression—demonstrates the impact that the performing arts could make not just in creating jobs, but also in rallying the public’s spirit and forcing it to think. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), established in 1935 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, remains a revolutionary example of a nation recognizing the theatrical community as a vital part of its wealth. In her new book, Furious Improvisation, award-winning author and journalist Susan Quinn provides an account of the project’s history and the individuals instrumental to its success, including the program’s national director, Hallie Flanagan.

  Until its termination in 1939, the FTP performed scores of plays across the nation, staging productions in theaters, schools, churches, parks and community centers, where the public was admitted free of charge. It created thousands of jobs for actors and playwrights as well as ushers, box office operators, set designers and stagehands, and provided free entertainment to those who were least able to afford it. This in itself was a visionary idea.

  No less significant was the nature of the material that was staged. Along with offering an assortment of light entertainment and classical drama, one of the FTP’s core components was “Negro Theater,” intended as an arena for African-American actors and playwrights to display their talents. Another was the “Living Newspaper,” new plays based on newspaper headlines of the day that explored the impact of current events on contemporary society. It is through these largely left-leaning plays that the project captured the unwanted attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was eventually forced to shut down.

  Apart from creating a vivid portrait of America in the 1930s in the light of the Roosevelt administration and the rising tide of anti-communist sentiment that ultimately led to the project’s demise, Quinn’s book shows how the arts can serve as cultural catalysts and equitable social condensers when placed in the hands of visionaries.

  Susan Quinn comes to the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood at 7 p.m. on July 10.

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