• Nicole Muise-Kielkucki

Nourishing the Soul of Our Communities: Why the Arts Will Save Our Economy & How to Help Them Do It


worker overlooking steel mill in Pittsburgh, PA
Jackson Pollock, recipient of WPA funding. LIFE Photo Archive

At the risk of comparing the current pandemic-induced economic environment to the Great Depression era, as so many others have done, it is hard to ignore the similarities. In 1934, the national unemployment rate was close to 25 percent, and in February of that year, the Northeastern United States was approaching its coldest month on record. Though we didn’t quite near that drastic number of unemployed in 2020, due in large part to the success of federal stimulus efforts (more on that later), this winter in Pittsburgh was excruciating, with one of our snowiest seasons ever recorded, and the economic pain felt by so many in our region is tragic and has been well-documented.



The Power of the Arts

On the heels of Congress’s passage of one of the largest infusions of federal money into the U.S. economy since the Great Depression, it’s hard not to draw another comparison between these two moments in history. The New Deal, enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to restart the economy in 1935, included work programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA, renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939). The millions of workers employed in these programs in the 1930s and ‘40s built schools and hospitals, roads and bridges, and sewer lines, and even planted 24 million trees.


Perhaps a less well-known use of WPA funding, however, went to supporting thousands of artists, including Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as perhaps the most famous among them. These musicians, sculptors, painters, and other creatives were tasked with raising the nation’s spirits, a fundamental and necessary task given the extent of the damage done to Americans’ livelihoods and sense of worth caused by the economic devastation of the Depression. About more than just jobs, this effort had lasting impacts on morale, and many artworks from this time are still on display today.


As we claw our way out of the economic and spiritual holes caused by forced social distancing measures that have nearly destroyed pockets of our community fabric, it is worth thinking through possible policy solutions and interventions that can help us build even stronger economies than we had going into this pandemic.


According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts and cultural sector adds more to the economy than do construction and transportation/warehousing combined, by $87 billion and $265 billion respectively.

The importance of the arts and creative sector on economic growth and vitality is often overlooked but cannot be overstated. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, the arts and cultural sector adds more to the economy than do construction and transportation/warehousing combined, by $87 billion and $265 billion respectively. Cultural amenities generate tourism visits and spending to cities and regions; public art helps foster shared community identity and pride; and creative entrepreneurship, events, and energy create the vibrant places that drive talent attraction and retention, arguably the most critical ingredients in today’s economic development recipe book.


In March and April, Fourth Economy will be hosting several virtual Townhall meetings throughout the state of Pennsylvania, to document the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the state’s creative sector. We will brainstorm policies, investments, and interventions that can help support the creative economy now and into the future, especially in BIPOC and rural communities. Please consider attending, and share with your Pennsylvania-based creative friends, family members, and colleagues!


As a parting gift, did you hear the one about the artists who conjured optical illusions to help the Allies beat the Nazis in WWII? It’s a good reminder to never doubt the transformative power of the arts!