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The good old days of the Great Depression

6/18/2014

George Grooms’ “Work,” part of Federal Art Project at Callanan Middle School.

George Grooms’ “Work,” part of Federal Art Project at Callanan Middle School.

Last week’s Iowa Arts Summit was the biggest event of its kind in my memory. First Lady Chris Branstad presented awards and scholarships. Our daily paper covered it with multiple stories and an editorial. Delegates left with the confidence of acknowledgment. Richard Florida’s relentless advocates had conquered Iowa.

Florida published “Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002, theorizing that successful cities of the future would be those that pandered to a new creative class of workers who love bike trails, skate board ramps, historic buildings, multiculturalism and, above all, a thriving arts scene. Florida’s theories were discredited soon after they were published — his 10 “most creative cities” have barely created more jobs than his “10 least creative cities.” That didn’t matter. Iowa hired him in 2005 to brand its Great Places program. Every seminar or focus group I attended in the last decade was filled with drinkers of Florida Kool-Aid. Most artists and arts organization seeking grant money claimed to be an essential part of the Florida vision. A new creative class rose — administrators and professional grant writers.

Outside this cult, the number of people wanting government to butt out of the arts also grew, in and outside the tea party bubble. They reminded us that effectual government largess to the arts peaked with the Federal Art Project of 1935 – 1943, which directly hired artists to brighten public buildings. That program had the balls to treat non-representational artists the same as realists. Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Thomas Hart Benton, Philip Guston, and Grant Wood found employment before their work could support them.

The second wave of federal support to the arts began when Dick Nixon pushed the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) through Congress. It did not, as he hoped, endear him to liberals, and it pissed off conservatives. Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano offended the latter with erotic and profane art that had indirectly received NEA grant money. That led to the creation of new levels of bureaucracy, both public and private, to build walls between donors and the ultimate consequences of their generosity. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs was our state version, BRAVO and Greater Des Moines Music Coalition regional ones, Metro Arts Alliance a civic one.  Funds these days do not go to the most worthy artists so much as to the best grant writers.

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Harlem Renaissance

All retrospectives challenge viewers to look at another era without present day prejudices. In Carl Van Vechten’s case, that challenge is epic. I asked African-American artist Jordan Weber what he knew about Van Vechten’s photographic portraits of cultural superstars from the 1920s and 30s (at Cedar Rapids Museum of Art through Sept.7). “The only thing I know about the guy is that he wrote ‘Nigger Heaven,’ ” Weber replied, referring to the best selling novel of 1926.

That book was a cultural phenomenon, portraying Harlem as a bustling center of intellectualism, cultural richness, political activism and unbridled libidos. The book also split the black intellectual community. Literati Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman and Nella Larsen championed the novel, title and all. (Larsen resembled the main female character and Van Vechten that character’s lover). On the other hand, W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Leroy Locke disavowed it.

The black subjects in this show were mostly refugees from less cultured places. Interestingly, Hughes came from Joplin, Missouri, a town infamous for lynchings recorded in Kimberly Harper’s 1930 book “White Man’s Heaven.” Boxing champion Joe Louis escaped Alabama. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson danced out of Virginia. Dancer Pearl Primus came from Trinidad. White stars in the show include Orson Welles (before his radio fame and his movies), Jimmy Stewart, James Cagney, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Salvador Dali and F. Scot Fitzgerald among many others. CV

Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.

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