The People’s WPA Isn’t Waiting Around for a Future 'New Deal'

Delivering Democracy in Pennsylvania, with L.M. Bogad and support from the People's WPA & the Center for Artistic Activism. (Issac Scott)

As Inauguration Day inches closer, so does the reported promise of a “new deal” presidency to combat the devastation of COVID-19 and the proposed cuts in arts funding from the outgoing administration. But rather than waiting on a promise that may never be entirely realized, artists and community organizers across the country have coalesced around a grassroots new deal of their own—the People’s WPA.

Conceived and organized by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), the People’s WPA is a project designed to address the creative needs of culture workers and change-makers with more immediacy than any official government program could provide. Since 2013, the USDAC has specialized in creating toolkits and policy papers for community-based creatives to apply to their own projects. By assuming the trappings of an official government entity (which it emphatically is not), the USDAC makes a compelling case for the importance of the arts as community and capacity-building hubs.

Should the government be interested in replicating any of their cohort-based projects and policy demands, their materials are as in-depth as they are practical. As People’s WPA organizer Carol Zou points out, the pandemic has been for many artists and culture-workers a “portal moment.”

“We’ve seen that a lot of people wanted to step up and change the system,” Zou says. “They saw that there was no going back to these old and broken systems that have failed us, and so they really wanted to be future-focused.” So rather than serve specifically as a blueprint for future government programs, the USDAC is content to serve their network of activist artists and organizers directly.

While Zou admits that the group doesn't have a lot of money available for direct grants, what they can provide is networking and educational opportunities—workshops on grant-writing, for example. Also, in the spirit of the original WPA of the 1930s, which famously gave over 40,000 artists paid creative work, the People's WPA has paired each cohort member with a visual artist who's been commissioned to create a poster of their project. The group is also creating a booklet assembling information about each project and artist involved for public distribution in the Spring of 2021.

Multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational, the USDAC as an organization embodies the ethos of diversity. Going even further, the USDAC works to balance each project geographically and disciplinarily. So it is with the People’s WPA: from Michigan to Maryland, South Dakota to Guam, the cohort hails from every possible corner of the nation, representing on-the-ground community organizers and culture-shapers from each. Even the California-based projects represent a broad diversity of tactics and missions within their respective regions.

L.M. Bogad's 'Economusic,' a project supported by the People's WPA, translates economic charts into musical scores.
L.M. Bogad's 'Economusic,' a project supported by the People's WPA, translates economic charts into musical scores. (Thatcher Hayward)

Take East Bay-based activist-artist L.M. Bogad, who chairs the Theatre and Dance department at UC Davis, and is the USDAC’s “Minister of Tactical Performance.” For the People’s WPA, Bogad is working on beefing up his long-running Economusic project, and spearheading the creation of Delivering Democracy, a cohort of dancing mailboxes first deployed in Pennsylvania in order to encourage voting by mail.

Bogad’s stock-in-trade is that of public intervention and the creation of moments using a “tactical” perspective in their deployment. Something he emphasizes in his practice is what he terms “the irresistible image.”

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“You create an image that tells your idea... it contains your point that you’re trying to make and it’s so beautiful or troubling or weird that everybody reproduces the image, including people who don’t like you. That’s when you know...ok we’re onto something.” With Delivering Democracy, photos of his band of merry mailboxes showed up in the New York Times, while on the ground, they distributed flyers in Joe Biden’s birthplace of Scranton, Pennsylvania detailing how to get votes in by mail. With Economusic, he uses charts of economic data translated into music scores to create live performances of dissonance with an audience participation component.

“It’s a different way (for the audience) to get the numbers and learn the data,” he explains, adding that he himself is no economist—and no musician. But by encouraging the audience to embody the charts he presents, they’re able to internalize their peaks and valleys, highs and lows.

Claudia Tirado speaking in Clarion Alley to commemorate an anti-displacement mural, a partnership between the Clarion Alley Mural Project and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in 2015. (courtesy of the AEMP)

Meanwhile, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP), founded in 2013 in the Bay Area and since expanded to LA and NYC, has fused data and interdisciplinary artistic practices for years. As described by the co-director of the L.A. chapter, Elana Eden, these include the collection and presentation of oral histories and portraits of those fighting eviction and displacement; the creation of protest art; and audio, lighting, and projection installations. (The group will soon publish a book with PM Press titled Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance.)

But, as the AEMP has helped document, the arts can also be used to accelerate gentrification. Citing a recent collaboration between the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD) and the AEMP, Eden describes the distinction they’ve drawn between grassroots-level artist communities and an influx of capital-backed galleries and real estate speculators. That's why the group has focused their advocacy to support the many “homegrown” projects and organizations that are “not just excluded but actively quashed by the state, or the city, or whoever is interested in moving capital through that space.”

CoFED Racial Justice fellow Yahdi Harris of Unbound Growing, a project supported by the People's WPA. (courtesy of Yahdi Harris)

One of several People’s WPA projects centering food and land justice is Santa Rosa’s Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED). Since 2011, the group has worked to develop food and land cooperatives across the United States and Canada. For the People’s WPA, Yahdi Harris—a CoFED Racial Justice Fellow—brought their project, Unbound Growing, to the cohort. Building kits for micro-gardening in urban and low-light spaces (kits include a lightbulb), Harris’ ultimate goal is to encourage BIPOC connection to the healing potential of land access and plant cultivation.

With the People’s WPA, the USDAC hopes to continue to strengthen a national network for under-resourced artists and communities in the spirit of a public works initiative, but one designed by the arts workers, not a room of bureaucrats. While there is some hope that a legislative “new deal” will include the arts in a meaningful way, the projects participating in the USDAC’s cohort represent artists and culture workers using their own vision in order to create the future they wish to see in the world—no matter who occupies the Oval Office.

 

Find out more about a People's WPA project near you here.

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