Call for Depression Era-style Public Art Project

The Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries is calling for an ambitious public art project to support artists through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist has said the UK government should embark on a programme similar in scale to the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) spearheaded by Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s. Set up in 1933, the PWAP employed 3,749 artists in five months resulting in the creation of 15,633 works of art for public institutions. Artists were also employed from 1934-43 by the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture to create paintings, sculptures and mural for federal buildings.

Artists got salaries and were able to research and create work… It gave many people their first real jobs and commissions”, Obrist explained. The government programmes boosted artists’ morale and are credited with catalysing a boom in American art following the Second World War including launching the careers of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Obrist believes a similar programme in the UK could help to bolster the art economy and members of the artistic community once the COVID-19 outbreak is under control.

Obrist’s optimism comes at an unsettling time for the arts and culture in the UK. On the one hand, there is distress over the empty museums forced to close, the exhibitions unseen and the uncertainty over whether key events in the art world calendar such as the Venice Biennale will proceed. On the other hand, there is opportunity and shared creativity as many artists move online to provide art-making tutorials, children locked down at home use online resources such as virtual exhibitions and videos as learning tools and a spotlight is shone on art’s role in the support of mental health.

Could Obrist’s proposed public art project bolster these self-help initiatives to tip the balance in favour of art and artists and secure the UK’s artistic future?

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