Artists Transforming Society: the People’s WPA

 

 

Despite its name, the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) is not a government agency.

Rather, it is an independent organization formed around the importance of arts and culture to the health of communities (and, by extension, to any nation), gave themselves the name of governmental department — in part, to make the point that there should be such a department and also to demonstrate what it looks like when we get the work done instead of waiting for the government to form it.

The USDAC holds that artists, art and culture are important beyond their entertainment or decoration: “Art and culture can build empathy, create a sense of belonging, and activate the social imagination and civic agency needed to make real change. When we feel seen, when we know that our stories and imaginations matter, we are more likely to bring our full creative selves to the work of social change.”

Recently, the USDAC released the “People’s WPA,” an inspiring and visually rich compilation of essays, toolkits and 25 real stories of artist-led and community-led efforts in cities and towns across the US to advance change, health and well-being. These change stories span a wide range of issues, concerns and dreams, and have been clustered within the publication into 7 themes: Healing, Nourishment, Regeneration, Remembering, Liberation, Truth Telling and Deepening Democracy. A poster accompanies each story to illustrate and celebrate it while tying it to the larger transformative theme the story has brought to life.

If you peek behind the scenes, People’s WPA is also more than a report. In creative, community-centered fashion, the USDAC built specific ingredients into their process of researching, creating and sharing this publication – similar to its previous “national actions.” These included intentionally nurturing and investing in working artists, sparking even greater local connection and mobilization of ideas, relationships and resources in communities across the US:

  • Calling out to everyday individuals and groups to nominate which stories should be told
  • Hiring artists to create the posters, and featuring “about the artist” information prominently within the publication alongside each story
  • Forming and supporting local teams hosted in-person gatherings to highlight the stories and organized groups to paste posters in highly visible spots where community members walk or drive frequently (similar to pastings for music shows, or political campaigns in some countries.)

We invite you to explore the People’s WPA through the excerpts below, including an introduction and 2 of the 25 stories within the manuscript: “Ampled” artist collective in New York and “Skid Row People’s Market” in LA. In the coming weeks, we will uplift additional stories from the People’s WPA.

Overview

In this moment of deep recovery and possibility, we are called to reimagine our fundamental ideas of labor and the specific role of cultural workers within it. Twenty-five organizations and individuals were selected for A People’s WPA, highlighting the unique and often transformative role that cultural workers play within their communities, forming a new paradigm of labor centered around 7 themes:

    • Deepening Democracy:  What do decision-making structures that are accountable to communities look like? How can cultural workers help expose injustice and build a path towards democracy that includes all?
    • Healing:  How do we promote a culture of care grounded in equity and access? What does strengthening the well-being of ourselves and our communities look like?
    • Liberation:  How do we transform the punitive criminal justice system into a restorative vision of society? What does working with youth of color to create a path to fulfill their full potential look like in action?
    • Nourishment:  How do we feed our bodies, communities and spirits? How do we reckon with a violent history of ownership and control of the land, and move towards community access to growing and eating nutritious, healthy, culturally appropriate food?
    • Regeneration:  What does rejuvenating our natural systems and building true sustainability look like? How do we address long standing inequality through climate and environmental justice?
    • Remembering: What has white supremacy encouraged us to forget? How do we reconnect to our cultural heritage, histories, traditions and the places we call home?
    • Truth-Telling: How do we break open the public narrative to center the lived experience of those with less power? How can artists help confront power through creative direct action and public ritual?

We believe these core themes must be an essential part of our social vision moving forward. Together, they shed light to our societies immeasurable potential for care, compassion and cooperation, and can serve as a guide for government’s ability to empower community members, artists and cultural workers to heal and repair society.

There has been an ongoing and rich conversation on Artist Work Programs in the United States, that many have contributed to. We hope to continue this conversation by inviting those engaged with these ideas to consider how a justice and healing framework is necessary for our work ahead.

 

STORIES

Theme: “DEEPENING DEMOCRACY”

 

AMPLED

(New York, NY)

“Cooperatives bring greater democracy and agency to the new online workplace.”

When Austin Robey saw the way in which musicians were being poorly served by new online platforms, he created a rare thing: a web platform that allows musicians to be supported by their community with direct payment. Unlike its competitors, Ampled is structured purely as a worker co-op. Ampled is 100% owned by the artists, workers and the community that creates it, giving musicians agency and ownership in today’s streaming economy. It is completely transparent, making all aspects of its operations – including its budgets – publicly accessible.

Ampled grounds itself in radical transparency, democratic governance and user ownership. In a society where the government and market economy have made it increasingly difficult for artists and musicians to thrive, Ampled is an example of self determination, building their own social network and governance models. They bring democracy, transparency, and agency to the online workplace and illustrate the importance of investment in alternative economic models that directly support artists.

 

ARTWORK BY KATIE KAPLAN: Katie Kaplan is a visual artist living and working in Philadelphia. In her multi-disciplinary practice, she focuses on exploring printmaking at the intersection of sculpture, fiber arts, installation and video. She is a professional teaching artist and community artist, work that is intrinsic to her practice as a whole.

 

Theme: “NOURISHMENT”

SKID ROW PEOPLE’S MARKET

(LOS ANGELES, CA)

“The places where people gather for food can also become tools for survival and hope.”

Danny Park took ownership of his parent’s grocery store in 2019, located in Skid Row, Los Angeles, home to one of the largest unhoused populations nationally. He had a vision of providing access to quality food, but soon realized he could help to bring together a divided community. Skid Row People’s Market (The Market) is built for and by the community in a low income, African-American, Latino and Korean neighborhood often referred to as a “food desert.” The Market hires directly from the neighborhood and places healthy food and community building at the center of their work.

The Market is a source of inspiration in Skid Row, offering much needed resources while building relationships through community-based programs and celebrations. However, managing the larger context that surrounds them has been challenging, as the staff contends with the realities of social division, poverty and addiction. Its success provides us with an opportunity to understand the benefit of investing in hybrid locations where food, social services and community programs merge, and underscores the unique benefit of artists’ driven spaces.

ARTWORK BY PETE RAILAND: Pete Railand is a printmaker, educator, bike rider, self-taught musician, dad and founding member of the Justseeds Artist Cooperative. He currently lives in Milwaukee WI and teaches future art teachers at The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

 

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