Recording the Unrecorded Art History of CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act – | Candle Made Easy

Record the unrecorded art history of CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act

Andrea reports on the efforts of those involved in the CETA program in the 1970s to uncover and document – and include in the art historical record – the magnificent work of the artists in the program and to celebrate CETA’s enduring impact on cabaret organizations with funding from administrative bodies, that helped the groups to stabilize and grow. Andrea points to CETA as an example of good funding policy that should be considered in the future.

Installation Views. ART/WORK: How the Government-Funded CETA Program Put Artists to Work, December 10, 2021 – March 31, 2022. City Lore Gallery, New York. Photos: George Malave

Virginia Maksymowicz and Blaise Tobia, artists and teachers who live in Philadelphia and are also good friends of mine, have been working with a small number of colleagues for the past five years on a project to chart the impact on the arts of a federal program, the Comprehensive Employment and Education Act (1973 – 1981) – known as CETA. Maksymowicz and Tobia were two of nearly 20,000 literary, performing and visual artists and cultural workers who found full-time employment through the federal program. This was the largest government grant to artists since the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, which notably commissioned murals in post offices and other federal buildings across the country. Yet crucial as CETA was to the ecology of the art community in the 1970s, it was omitted from all historical accounts.

Two New York exhibitions about CETA were recently held on the Lower East Side. One was at the City Lore Gallery, which sponsored both exhibitions along with Artists Alliance, Inc.; the other was at the Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space. The City Lore exhibition emphasized visual documentation and gave a very vivid and engaging picture of what street level artists have contributed to city life. The Cuchifritos exhibition included back-of-the-house operations: written documentation in the form of correspondence, proposals, reports and press coverage. It was fascinating for anyone with experience in cultural administration and gave a good picture of the demands of such professions. The exhibitions were organized by Molly Garfinkel and Jodi Waynberg.

CETA was not established as an arts program. It was an employment program run by the Department of Labor during a period of high unemployment. The Nixon administration emphasized decentralized government, and while the program received federal funding, it gave block grants to the state and local governments that managed the funding. While most of CETA funding provided vocational training for low-skilled workers, it included a category for hiring “skilled unemployed” to do public service work, the category that employed artists.

Gallery exhibition featuring many enlarged and framed documents from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) detailing various participating organizations.  Also mounted on the wall are display cases with other standard sized documents and a series of 6 small black and white photos related to CETA.
Installation Views. ART/WORK: How the Government-Funded CETA Program Put Artists to Work, 12/10/2021 – 03/19/2022. Cuchifritos Gallery, New York. Photos: Brad Farwell

Few of the artists were commissioned to produce public artworks. Rather, they brought art to the communities through social service programs and various non-profit organizations. They conducted courses, workshops, demonstrations and consultations and organized performances, exhibitions and festivals. They also worked directly for a variety of arts organizations. The New York program, CETA’s largest arts program, also acted as a booking agent; Non-profit organizations could contact her when they needed someone to speak, teach, perform, or give one-off presentations. I remember using CETA to find a novelist to read to a group of seniors at a community arts center in Rockland County, New York; Our only expense was his bus fare.

CETA’s nationwide success in the arts scene was based on the knowledge and professional dedication of John Kreidler, then an intern with the San Francisco Art Commission. Kreidler had experience with the Department of Labor and had written a master’s thesis on the WPA. He understood that art is work and a significant number of artists were out of work so they fell under federal guidelines. Between 1974 and 1981, through his initiative and the support of the SF Department of Manpower, more than 800 Bay Area artists found jobs supported by CETA to spread the word.

CETA’s impact on the arts has been multifaceted. Not only did it provide a living wage to a large number of artists, but it also introduced neglected communities to the arts. it was remarkably multicultural long before that term was commonly used; and it has enabled a number of arts organizations, large and small, to survive through a very difficult financial period. In a panel organized by Maksymowicz last spring, Senga Nengudi and Maren Hassinger, both supported by CETA in Los Angeles, spoke about the recognition the program offers to young artists and the community of artists it nurtures.

In the Philadelphia area, institutions from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to public schools have used CETA funds to hire artists. The Brandywine Workshop and Archives employed 72 artists, 38 of them full-time, and the Painted Bride Art Center hired its first professional staff to handle administration, theater management, maintenance, fundraising, and publicity. These are just small indications of CETA’s enduring impact on the Philadelphia and nation’s art scene; CETA’s success should be recognized in current and future discussions on the possibilities for responsible public finance in an important social and economic sector.

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