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Is it Time to Put the Arts on the Dole?

America's deep economic recession has devastated cultural organizations. Attendance is lagging at many performances as people cut their spending and stay home. And big donations, which are culture's lifeblood, are down as well.

The result is tangible and, to many, tragic. Entire performing arts companies - including the Baltimore, Maryland, Opera, and the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Shakespeare Theater Company - have shut down for lack of funds. Others in a segment of the economy that employs almost 6 million people have announced layoffs and are trimming productions and plans for new facilities.

The Obama Administration's economic-stimulus package does include $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA dispenses grants to arts projects that it deems worthy. But that's a shaky proposition to those who need funding now to survive. Some stimulus money is aimed at infrastructure improvements, but upgrading a theater won't necessarily put paying customers into it.

Calls for a new WPA are increasing. WPA is short for the Works Progress Administration, a national program that employed more than 8 million struggling writers, actors and artists during America's Great Depression of the 1930s. Some really were starving artists. Federal writers produced a series of state guidebooks that are now considered Americana classics. Plays continued, thanks to the Federal Theater Project. And a Treasury Department program sent in muralists to dress up post offices and federal buildings, including one that became our own VOA headquarters here in Washington, D.C.

A few of the theatrical productions stirred so much political controversy that Congress stopped funding the WPA in 1939.

But some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including writer Ralph Ellison and actor-director Orson Welles, owed their survival to government checks. And those who support the arts now think it's time for Uncle Sam to rescue struggling artists, dancers, writers and actors once again.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.