One of the most celebrated explosions of American art actually occurred in the midst of the nation’s worst recession.
As part of his New Deal plan to stimulate economic growth in 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which put millions of men, and some women, to work on public works projects.
Although few of those people are still with us today, most proudly remembered the work they did building highways, dams, bridges, firehouses, water mains, parks, airports, concert halls and national parks.
But there was also a realization, even in desperate times, that the arts are part of the national economy. So the WPA hired artists who worked on some 200,000 projects, which included creating murals and posters, writing songs and plays, and documenting America’s original folk art.
Much of what they created still hangs in museums and public buildings across the country.
A story in last week’s Portland Press Herald dramatically highlighted how the arts and the economy are still intertwined.
A study by an arts advocacy organization found that Portland’s nonprofit arts and culture sector “is a $49.1 million industry, with organizational spending of $26 million and audience expenditures of $22.6 million.” That supports about 1,535 jobs in the community, the report said.
“These numbers represent simply the nonprofit community,” Jennifer Hutchins of Creative Portland told the Press Herald. “It does not take into consideration organizations like the State Theatre or any of the commercial art galleries or any other commercial activity related to the arts and culture. None of that is in there.”
The report estimates the arts generate $235 billion in economic activity across the U.S. and support about 4.1 million jobs. That is certainly a significant slice of the U.S. economy.
While the total impact of the arts in Lewiston-Auburn may be more modest than in Portland, we seem to be quickly gaining.
Well-established organizations such as the Public Theatre, Community Little Theatre and the Maine Music Society have been here for decades.
Then, of course, Bates College offers an art museum and a variety of community performances open to the public, in addition to its nationally recognized Summer Dance Festival.
All draw visitors and dollars to our region.
They come atop programs offered at both libraries, USM’s Lewiston-Auburn College and Central Maine Community College.
Then there are the established but newer attractions like the Franco-American Heritage Center and Museum L-A.
More recently, Art Walk Lewiston Auburn and the Lewiston Auburn Film Festival have been rapidly growing.
And it should come as no surprise that, as our arts scene has grown, so have the number of restaurants and smaller entertainment venues downtown.
In 2004, Gov. John Baldacci hosted a conference in Lewiston on the “Creative Economy.”
Our takeaway from the conference was that everything in the economy is connected. Businesses best succeed in places that can attract and hold well-educated, creative people.
Those people are attracted to communities that offer recreational opportunities, both the outdoor and indoor variety.
And, eight years later, we can truly say with conviction: The creative economy? Well, “it’s happening here.”
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.