In this episode, we talk with Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen), assistant professor of dance at Point Park University. Colleen researches the history of public funding for arts programs in the United States from the New Deal through the post War era. Her 2017 article in the Dance Research Journal, titled “Ballerinas on the Dole: Dance and the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), 1974-1982,” is the subject of most of our conversation.
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Conversation originally published on October 8th, 2018.
The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Yes, like, there is money to employ artists and to do all these things. But there’s also this pull towards just completely zeroing out this type of thinking. So, I guess I’m just, you know, mentioning that to say I think in this moment of political turmoil it’s important for those of us who care about arts funding to think about how to frame that when so much of our social programming is being threatened.
Billy Saas: You are listening to Money On The Left, the official podcast of the Modern Money Network Humanities Division, or MMN HD. In this episode, we talk with Colleen Hooper, Assistant Professor of Dance at Point Park University. In addition to her choreography and performance work, Colleen researches the history of public funding for arts programs in the United States across both the New Deal and Post-World War II eras. Her 2017 article in the Dance research journal titled “Ballerinas on the Dole: Dance and the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), 1974-1982,” is a particularly riveting read, and the subject of most of our conversation today. In “Ballerinas on the Dole”, Colleen tracks the development and demise of CETA as a vital funding resource for US dance companies, several of which make a compelling case for understanding dance as a public service. Colleen clarifies in her article, and throughout our conversation, just how vital it is to consider systems and democratic oversight alongside proposals for public employment programs. But slightly differently, the CETA case is emblematic of a somewhat deeper truth. Democratic experimentation is messy, and vital work. Thank you to Colleen for joining us, and thank you to Alex Williams for producing this episode, and to Hillbilly Motobike. Thanks for the theme tune. Colleen Hooper, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Thank you so much for having me, I’m excited to be here.
Billy Saas: Well, let’s just start off with asking you to give us a sketch of your background experience as a scholar, performer and teacher.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure. So I studied dance and English in undergraduate, and I went to George Washington University and really became interested in dance and politics around that time being in Washington, DC. Then I lived in New York for seven years, and I pursued choreography, performance, teaching, arts administration: I really went at Dance from a lot of different perspectives. And I became interested in dance and community settings at that time as well, because I had the opportunity to perform in site-specific performances and to see a lot of really innovative work that was happening in the city at that time. And then I went to Philadelphia in 2008, and I got my MFA and PhD in Dance at Temple University. And that was another whole experience in terms of thinking about how my aesthetic ideas and my performances and my choreography could intersect with my scholarship. And government. Public funding has always been a big interest of mine. And so studying CETA, the CETA Dance program, was a way to bring together questions that I had about the way funding is structured in this country for the arts, and also to zoom in on this place in time that was really hard for me to imagine that it had existed. So that’s kind of how I got to this point, and now I teach at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. And I teach a combination of Dance History classes, Dance improvisation, and choreography.
Scott Ferguson: So if we could go back a little bit, you talked about how in your experience you found yourself interested not just in dance performance and dance form and research but also public administration and policy and public funding. Could you talk a little bit more about what exactly brought you to that topic? Because it seems to me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that that isn’t the go to topic for, I don’t know, Dance scholarship. That we often think of the arts as belonging to the private sphere.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right. Well, I think being in Washington DC as a college student influenced me a lot, because I was able to see and understand aspects of government from being in that situation. And it made me curious about how that tied to the broader dance field. And then in New York, I worked at a nonprofit organization called Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and I did press in marketing for them. And it helped me understand how a mix of both public and private funding came together to support an organization with a specific mission. And I think that I’ve just always been curious about how things work. Like, how does one become a choreographer and maintain a company? Or how does one create an organization with a specific mission focused on the arts? And how does one sustain that? And so I would always be asking those types of questions. And I’d always be curious about tracing the money, basically. And thinking about, you know, where does the money come from? And how does this sustain itself? And what role, if any, does the government have in it? And how much of it is a private endeavor? So I guess, yeah, I’ve always been fascinated by what undergirds these artistic and cultural projects and question the idea of how does that relate to ideas of the public and public service, and what our government can provide and what our government does provide. Or what our government chooses not to be involved in.
Maxx Seijo: So kind of, to those ends, could you trace for our listeners, a kind of brief history of public art provisioning in the United States and highlight where the government has been involved and really taking responsibility for the field of artistic endeavor?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure. So during the Great Depression, in 1933, was the first time that the government created something that would aid US citizens. So the unemployment rate at that time was about 25%. And the government created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration during that year. And it was the first nationwide welfare and government work program. It was part of FDR’s New Deal legislation, and Congress passed a broader welfare program in 1935. And this 1935 program included aid for theater workers, artists, musicians and writers. And the whole aim of it was to hire unemployed professionals in their given fields, but artists were specifically categorized as workers for the first time in 1935. And I think something that’s important to mention is that it was this idea of including the arts as part of a democratic culture, and that the arts could be integral to democracy. And that artists were cultural workers who actually contributed to society at large. Despite many accomplishments, the Federal Theater Project and the Federal Dance Theater were shut down due to controversies about the productions, its professional quality, and also some of the political affiliations of its performers, because a lot of them were involved in leftist causes. And that became very controversial kind of near the end of the WPA programs. And basically, Martin dies and J. Parnell Thomas began hearings in August of 1938, for the House Un-American Activities Committee to determine if members of the Federal Theater Project engaged in communist activities. And while the Director of the Federal Theater Project thoroughly defended her program, it was shut down in 1939. So that was the beginning of the funding for the arts from the government. And then a lot of it does continue kind of in this vein connected to communism. There were a lot of US diplomacy initiatives surrounding communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which were led by President Dwight Eisenhower, and he established the President’s Emergency Fund for International Affairs in 1954. The purpose of this fund was to increase international appreciation of US culture by exporting it abroad. So in terms of dance, which is my field, the Soviet Union was really known for its dance culture at this time. The Moiseyev of Dance Company had a popular tour of the US in 1958, and the Bolshoi Ballet toward the US in 1959, followed by the Kirov Ballet in 1961. And so this kind of created a sense that the US needed to put some of its own culture forward in order to show what we had to offer. So after a lot of debate about what dance companies should represent the US, the American Ballet Theatre, toured the Soviet Union in 1960. And the New York City Ballet followed in 1962. So this idea that the artist from the United States could show that they were offering a counterpoint to the Soviet Union culture. And it was a way for the United States to show that we had more to offer than consumerism and capitalism that we also had an important culture. And then the next thing that happened with arts funding was the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965. And this organization sought to support artists financially, so they would be able to pursue aesthetic goals outside of the capitalist marketplace. And for dance, this was a really prolific period, because from 1965 to 1975, the number of dance companies in the United States more than quadrupled. So this was kind of considered a dance boom during this time period. So that brings us up to the 70s. And the National Endowment for the Arts was still being funded at very high levels during that time.
Maxx Seijo: So I’d like to kind of latch on to something you talked about, in the ways in which public funding kind of during the Roosevelt era was predominantly democratic enterprise. And you seem to imply perhaps, that this had to do with kind of the American anti-fascist project of the late 30s and 40s, and I was wondering if you could expand on that, and perhaps illuminate the ways in which we did fund art in the name of American anti-fascism?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Hmm, I think that’s a great question. One thing that’s interesting about the 1930s, and the Works Progress Administration, funding of the arts, is that it revealed some really inherent tensions, which I think continue to be present in government arts funding. And that is the tension between artistic freedom of expression, and being part of any type of pro-government project. And those things are just continually at odds within any government funded artistic project. And we found that in the 1930s, because they put forth this idea that there was a populist intention for the WPA arts programs, and that it wasn’t about artists being solitary geniuses, but about a general movement. And this is a historian, Francis O’Connor. He says, it’s a “sound general movement, which maintains art as a vital functioning part of any cultural scheme,” and I think that that’s really interesting, because it’s a great possibility for art, but then at the same time, it’s very limiting. So basically, if you’re not part of this sound general movement that is supporting a specific idea of democracy and is anti-fascist by nature, then we don’t really have space for you within this movement. But at the same time, the government was very cautious to get into overtly censoring the content of these arts projects. So it’s a very challenging equation, because the government did have certain expectations about what the content of the artwork would be, and how it would support certain democratic principles, but at the same time, they knew that by being overt about those intentions, that that would basically stifle any sense have creativity from the people they were employing. So it just creates a very interesting tension. And I think one of the ways I summed it up best is with the reception of government funds comes the assumption of public benefit. So there’s this idea that the public should benefit when any person is receiving government funding for the arts. But then how you decide whether or not the public is benefiting, I think, becomes a really interesting question.
Scott Ferguson: So can you clarify, perhaps in contrast to a private patronage system that we associate with the arts before this period that you’re outlining, and happening at the same time, how does private patronage for the arts and in private commercial art, perhaps, articulate these tensions in other ways?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): I would say that private patronage of the arts allows for private citizens to pursue aesthetic directions that they find to be valuable in some way.
Scott Ferguson: As long as somebody is paying for it, though.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): As long as somebody is paying for it, right? Or as long as there’s some money coming in from somewhere to provide, you know, the basic necessities. So it isn’t tied to a larger project of government, necessarily, but it’s tied to a foundation that has certain goals or a philanthropist who has a certain set of interests. It’s not tied to a government project, which I think is the major difference. And yeah, I mean, I think the assumption of public benefit that you see connected to government funded arts projects, is one of the most interesting questions because it’s something that’s challenging to define, like, who decides if it’s benefiting the public and what public is it benefiting?
Billy Saas: So we’ve talked a bit about the Works Progress program. Another government program that develops later in your timeline is the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, or CETA. And you’ve written and researched a lot about this, could you tell us a little bit about what CETA is, where it came from, and how it’s organized?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure. So CETA was an Employment Training Act that was passed in 1973. And it was during President Richard Nixon’s administration. And during this time, the unemployment rate had increased from 5% to 9%. From 1974 to 1975, both Democrats and Republicans agreed that there had to be some type of federal action to ease unemployment because that jump was so great. And Gerald Ford significantly expanded CETA and then Jimmy Carter actually encouraged states to employ artists and other cultural workers through CETA from 1977 to 1980. So it was really, by the time it got going, it was like a six year period that provided a tremendous amount of employment in the United States. The cultural workers that I focus on, were approximately 22,000 of the workers. And it’s not necessarily the largest portion, it’s like 3% of the large number of people who were actually employed through CETA, but it made a really large difference in terms of those fields, in terms of the cultural fields.
Scott Ferguson: So at the same time as CETA is being created, funded, implemented, debated, you have a larger conversation going on. And a larger fight going on about the politics of full employment that get concentrated around the Humphrey-Hawkins bill in the 1970s. And I was curious if you could talk about the relationship between CETA and Humphrey-Hawkins, and Humphrey-Hawkins, of course, didn’t stabilize it. It was, you know, constantly being re-articulated and frankly gutted again and again. But what were some of the bigger goals that were being pushed for in terms of public employment, versus CETA, which, to me, reads as a tremendous compromise?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Mm hmm. Well, I can’t say too much like I would need to look a little more in depth in terms of the exact relationship between CETA and Humphrey-Hawkins. So that’s something I would love to come back to more in depth. But I can tell you a lot about the way CETA was constructed, and how it was structured and how that bared on the way that it was actually enacted, and how it came to its demise. So Nixon designed CETA as a decentralized program with limited federal oversight. And it was something that actually replaced over a dozen programs that were previously part of the Manpower Development and Training Act, and also the Office of Economic Opportunity. So Nixon cut back on all of these Labor Department programs, and the federal government did not oversee the CETA mandates. Initially, CETA was supposed to have extensive federal oversight, but basically that federal budget allocation was eliminated when it became enacted. It became a very open program: local officials were really able to do what they wanted with the CETA funding that they received. And it had very lenient standards for employment. Local officials liked this because they were able to do what they wanted with the money. But there were some real structural issues in terms of accountability and being able to speak to how the program was becoming effective because there wasn’t any oversight. So the Department of Labor really only had basic information about the CETA projects after their completion. Like they knew what category they went into, but they weren’t able to really evaluate what they were doing. The federal government offered technical assistance, but no meaningful supervision. So with CETA, we had a combination of decentralization: so the money went out to prime sponsors all over the country, over 450 of them, there was a lack of accountability. And because of the leniency of the program, there was a lot of political favoritism. And it led to CETA spending controversies. So the way in which it was constructed, I would say, was basically constructed to fail. And there’s just a quotation I’d like to share, which is historian Bruce Schulman, explained that Nixon, “did not attack liberal programs or agencies and the political networks that undergirded them. Rather, he subtly, cunningly undermined them. Nixon wanted to destroy the liberal establishment by stripping it of his bases of support, and its sources of funds.” So I just think that’s an important way to look at it, because I think that’s exactly what he did with CETA. He set up the structure in such a way that it couldn’t become a sustainable, successful program for full employment.
Billy Saas: Seems like a really good opportunity to kind of, you know, learn from how a public program rolls out, but then also a good reminder to be, you know, mindful of who’s proposing it, and to what ends, was there any indication at the time? I mean, I know that the historian, looking back, says this is what was happening, but was there resistance at the time and people looking at what Nixon was doing and saying “look, we see what you’re doing here?”
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Yes, there definitely was. In terms of the entrance standards for CETA, Democrats wanted strict standards to make sure that people who were poor benefited the most. But Republicans fought for more lenient standards. And in the end, that was part of the compromise is that the standards were quite lenient, and the money could be made available to people who had in some cases only been unemployed for a matter of weeks. So that was part of the compromise. But you definitely saw the Democrats wanting to be stricter in terms of who received the funding and Republicans wanting it to be a more open process where each of the prime sponsors would have the maximum amount of flexibility in terms of how they allocated the money.
Maxx Seijo: Given this sort of compromise between Democrats and the Republicans, it’s worth asking explicitly, I think what perhaps is implied here is, so what was the role in CETA for arts, if there was any?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): There was not any intended role for the arts in CETA. That was not part of the program. So that’s a big difference between the CETA program and the 1930s WPA arts programs, wherein the arts were part of it, and it was, you know, from the beginning, there was an infrastructure to support the 1930s programs. So art was not intended to be part of CETA at all. And basically, the way that it happened is that local administrators were able to categorize artists and performers among workers, and to say that they should also be receiving benefits because they were also people who are contributing to our country. And they did this by framing the arts as public service. The person who created the first proposal for the arts in CETA was John Kreidler, and he did this in San Francisco. And he had a really unusual background because he had worked at the Office of Management and Budget in the United States Capitol. So he had knowledge about CETA prior to it becoming law from his time there. But he had also studied the WPA during graduate school. So he knew a lot about the arts programs during the 1930s. So he took his technical knowledge, his ability to work with census figures and understand the Office of Management and Budgets reports, and he combined it with his knowledge of the WPA. And he was the one that really brought this idea of artists in CETA, and had it pass in San Francisco. That was the first program. And then it kind of spread all across the country. From his first proposal in 1974 through 1980, it went from a proposal for 24 artists, to employing 10s of 1000s of artists.
Scott Ferguson: Can you give us an idea about the range of different arts that were practiced under CETA, and then maybe we can use this as a transition to focusing on dance, which is your specific area of expertise and an interest?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Sure, well, the range of artists that were supported during CETA is quite broad, and honestly, it’s difficult to even grasp. There are some reports that talk about the different types of arts that took place in all the different states. But there is no one archive that really shows the full breadth of the CETA program because of its decentralized structure. That being said, My research has focused primarily on the New York City CETA arts project, because there is an archive for that, and I was able to survey the entire archive, and it was also the largest arts program in the country. I’ve also written about CETA arts programs in Philadelphia, and I’ve interviewed people from CETA arts programs across the country. But the way in which these programs were not organized makes it impossible to actually understand the breadth of what took place. That being said, there were visual artists, theater artists, dance artists, puppetry, oral history. And among the generation who was employed in the CETA arts projects, it’s literally a continually unfolding story about different institutions that exist to this day that were given a start or given some type of monetary or administrative support from CETA. So it’s something that it’s quite exciting, but it’s also something that’s quite overwhelming in the sense that it just branches out in all these different directions, and it’s actually impossible to know everything that took place during that time.
Maxx Seijo: So throughout your work, you focus on the history of Dance during these programs. And I was wondering if you could kind of give an overview for our listeners, what Dance looked like under CETA, and specifically, how Dance was shaped by CETA, and how the dance aesthetics were shaped by public funding?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right? That’s a great question. Two of the most important trends at that time, in both the Dance field and also in the arts, in general, were culturally diverse arts programming, and also expanding regional arts centers. So it was a time that many arts organizations that are well established today were founded during the 60s and 70s. And it was creating a much broader sense of what art could be. And I think that’s also the case in terms of Dance. Like beginning in the 1960s, African Americans, Latinas, and women were gaining more mainstream attention for their cultural contributions. And so this was also part of the Black Arts Movement, which is mostly defined as the decade from 1964 to 1974. And, basically, this time period was a time for art really broadening and reaching into areas that had not been necessarily considered a place for art in the past. Prior to this time period, it was more about taking art that was created in major metropolitan centers, and exporting it in some ways to regional places. But with Dance, and with the visual arts, this was a time of kind of broad democratization of the arts. In terms of Dance, I mean, I would say, I could speak best on the New York City CETA arts program. And it was very much tied to what was going on and experimental dance during that time in New York City and people who are receiving funding. So they were people who were considered to be important in terms of their aesthetic contribution, but the dancers were also evaluated in terms of what type of public service contribution they could give. And people were assigned, depending on what their skills were like, they may be assigned to do a performance outdoors at Union Square, or they might be assigned to do a performance with children in a school, or they might be assigned to teach dance to children at a school, working with people who are handicapped. So there was really a broad range of what the dancers did. But the thing that the New York City dance program had in common is that these dancers were considered to have very aesthetically innovative approaches to Dance. And they also had the skills to perform Dance as public service in some capacity.
Maxx Seijo: So interesting, because that, you know, reminds me of what we were talking about earlier with the tension that you say is at the heart of public funding of arts programs. And it seems like in this case, the public funding actually kind of made dance aesthetics and arts generally kind of more capacious than perhaps it was before. And I’m wondering if you think that runs, in contrast to perhaps the quote that you mentioned from the historian before, who argued that public funding was perhaps binding of creativity?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Hmm. Yeah, I mean, I think that CETA definitely did help people reimagine what the arts could be. I also think that, as I argue in the article that we referenced, that the program tended to benefit the artists more so than the public, and that it’s really tricky to figure out what type of arts benefit the people who are receiving it without asking them. You know, like it was really set up in a way where it says: okay, well, this panel of experts has decided that these artists are meritorious in some way. So we’ve selected to support them. And now we’re going to have them go out and perform and give service to the public to places that don’t necessarily have access to the arts. Right away, we have an issue, because people do have artistic practices in their own communities. So it’s becoming this sense of cultural export that was not necessarily valuing the artistic expressions that were already taking place in communities. And I think that’s one of the aspects of CETA that failed in terms of public service. But I do agree with your statement that it did broaden the definition of what Dance could be. And as I stated in my article, Martha Bowers talked about how performing a dance in a men’s prison made her realize, oh, this type of dance, I don’t think this type of dance belongs in this setting. And there are reasons for it. And it made her really question what type of dance she was doing, and why she was doing it and for whom she was doing it. So I think that by placing artists in places that they would not have normally performed outside of the proscenium stage, CETA did really create a lot of growth for the artists themselves. And I guess I just keep coming back to this question of, it’s hard to say, what benefits the public because there is no one monolithic public. And we can’t necessarily ask the people who were on the other end of these programs, you know, that’s not necessarily an option at this point in history. So I guess I’ll say I do think that CETA expanded the notion of what Dance can be, and it also exposed some of the limitations of exporting a cultural form to different places in the assumption that it offers public benefit.
Scott Ferguson: There’s also the question of what counts as success and what counts as public benefit?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right.
Scott Ferguson: Because even failure, or contradiction or tension, or bringing the arts, whether they were comfortably in a kind of New York, hip experimental scene, and then brought into a public prison context. And the sort of problems and tensions that unfolded, one could make the argument, as I think you in a certain way do in your article, that there’s something at least minimally, socially and politically and aesthetically interesting about that, if not beneficial, from what it teaches us.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Hmm, I definitely agree. And I think that there’s a lot to be learned from that process. But it always makes me want to go back to those initial questions we discussed at the beginning of the podcast, where we think about, where’s the money coming from? Who’s receiving the money? And what is the money supporting? What is the money valuing? And so I guess my question with it is, what types of art are receiving money and being valued as contributions to society? And what types of art are being seen as amateur or folk art or less important in some way? And that’s something that I keep returning to because I also talked about an article that Janice Ross wrote where she discussed how now there still is a good amount of dance in prisons, but it’s often the prisoners themselves who are participating in the process. It’s not about them, necessarily being audience members who are receiving cultural edification, but they’re actual participants within the process. And that’s the trend that’s been more prevalent currently in that type of situation. But I do think that there is value to what happened during CETA, and I just think it’s important to think about who is receiving the support from the government and who is viewed as needing edification.
Scott Ferguson: Absolutely.
Billy Saas: This is bringing to mind something at a talk that was given at the Money on the Left conference in April, a conversation between performance artists, Harriet Gillies and Rohan Grey, and I recall correctly, Harriet was suggesting that one of the advantages of like a public arts program would be to help educate and develop aesthetic sensibilities in audiences in terms of, you know, educating folks on how to receive and appreciate and engage with art. I wonder if there were any kind of conversations or ideas around that circling CETA?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Definitely, there definitely were. And it was this idea that the arts were usually reserved for certain class of people, and that now we’re bringing the arts to everyone. And there were some aspects of that that were really quite moving, like looking through the archives and seeing pictures drawn by children who enjoyed the dance performances that took place at their schools or reading letters from seniors who had the opportunity to take a pottery class and really enjoyed it. So there were these really interesting glimpses of the type of impact that this program made. And it also provided a seed for many organizations that continued after CETA ended. So you know, local arts organizations really got their start with that CETA of money, and then they were able to find support and other places after the program ended. So there are definitely a lot of things that happened during CETA that have continued to contribute a lot to communities all over the country. And this idea of art appreciation, aesthetic appreciation, it also, I think, sometimes can lean into bringing dominant Western ideals about aesthetics, to people who have other ideals and other aesthetics. And I think that that’s something that I want to always be careful about, and also be very inquisitive about because I think that from our 2018 point of view, we understand that bringing dominant Western artistic esthetics into communities that don’t currently value them is really problematic.
Scott Ferguson: Absolutely. And I was wondering if you could take a more detailed and deeper dive, as you do in your article into an example of this kind of imposition, right? And the limits of public arts funding that you had referenced earlier, maybe perhaps in relationship to prison performances?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Yeah, so in my article, I talked about a number of performers who performed at the Arthur Kill Correctional Institution on Staten Island. And basically, that certain performances seemed really well received and exciting, according to both the dancers, and according to the prison newsletter, which I was able to view in the archives, and they talked about how wonderful the Rachel Lampard and dancers company was and how much they related to it. And then they brought another dance group in a few months later, and the reaction was more mixed. And it was just such an interesting practice, because I was able to speak to a number of people who performed in the prison and get their perspectives, I was not able to speak to any of the audience members who watched, but I was able to piece together a sense of what could be known and what could be unknown, in terms of a public performance in that type of setting. And the thing that was fascinating to me is that, you know, 40 years after this performance took place, several of the dancers I spoke to brought it up as something that really impacted them because it was so different than what they were accustomed to in a Western theatrical stage presentation. They received so much feedback from the audience, and a tap dancing group, which was comprised of Jane Goldberg, and Charles “Cookie” Cook was really well received. Whereas, a dance that was performed by Mitchell Rose and Martha Bowers had a more mixed reception, we’ll say, and that was like a moment for Martha because they were performing something that was kind of dry, tongue in cheek humor relationship between a man and a woman. And, at one point, she does a somersault in the dance and her underwear was exposed. It was like, you know, dance underwear. So it was supposed to happen, it wasn’t a mistake, but the audience just reacted so much. And she just thought, what am I doing? Like, this is not a dance to be doing in a men’s prison. Like, they’re just seeing me as a woman who just exposed my underwear, and she just realized there was a huge disconnect between something that on a New York City stage in the theater district would be seen as cheeky and tongue in cheek, you know, humor, and being in a men’s prison, and that there was really a huge gap between those two spaces. And then that was something that she really considered and it influenced the direction in which she took her career. And she’s been involved in many different programs in Red Hook Brooklyn, over the past decades, first with Dance Theater, etc. And now she works with youth in the community in a lot of other ways. And it really was a career changing moment for her because I think she realized that a dance does not have any meaning that is not tied to this broader sense of place and audience.
Maxx Seijo: So fascinating. I can’t help but thinking as we’re discussing this, what’s so interesting about the way you’re posing questions, and we’re pondering the question of public funding and public value, is that the question is never, right, “Can we afford to employ artists?”, it’s just, it’s about what we want to get done with the employment that we can always already afford. And I think the way that you’re framing that and that we’re discussing is just so useful to actually get to the core of the question of public arts and how we should be appropriating money to public betterment.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Right, I think that’s a great point, because we’re also sitting here in a moment where the past two budget years, our current President Donald Trump, proposed to completely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. And these budgets that he’s issued are, as we know, they’re mostly political documents. But it also gives us a sense of his vision for the arts in our current moment, and his administration’s vision. And I mean, thankfully, in the 2018 budget, bipartisan support led to both the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities receiving very modest increases in funding, and they did stay open for this past year. Those increases did not keep pace with inflation. But they, you know, were small increases nonetheless. But then again, the same thing happened for the 2019 budget. He also proposed that we completely eliminate these organizations. And right now, we’re just awaiting appropriations. So I don’t think that these organizations are necessarily going to be eliminated this year. But it is two years in a row that that has been what is proposed, and that different members of Congress have stepped forward and talked about things like the veterans who are being assisted through the National Endowment for the Arts and how every single state in the Union receives benefit from these programs because they do enact a lot on the local level. They’re not just secluded in metropolitan centers, as was once the way in terms of funding. So I guess I’m just saying all that to say that, that’s the historical moment we’re living in.
Billy Saas: So one of the really great things about your research is that it helps us get a sense for how it came to be in the first place that we had just the NEA and NEH as the primary outlets for public funding of arts and humanities work in scholarship, could you tell us how it came to be that this CETA program was shut down and why it was shut down?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): So the CETA program was the last labor program that created public service employment jobs for US citizens. And I think that’s really important to note, because even though we’ve had other types of interventions like this was full time employment, full benefits provided by the government, to citizens, because there was an acknowledgement that the economy was not creating the jobs that were needed, due to various factors. And when CETA was coming to a close, there’s a New York representative named Ted Weiss, who proposed a new program called the Federal Artist Program bill. And he basically wanted to create a public-private partnership where different types of companies either for-profit or non-profit companies would employ an artist. And at first, the government would pay the majority of the artist’s salary. And then as the years went by, the government would pay less, and the for-profit or non-profit would pay more, until it got to the point that the artist was just employed by this outside organization. Now, this bill did not come to vote. So it never came to fruition. It didn’t see the floor. But these ideas about how the arts could be leveraged in different ways became part of the National Endowment for the Arts Challenge Grant program in the 1980s. And so this was a way of the National Endowment for the Arts putting some money forward for the arts, and then whatever organization received that money would have to find matching funds elsewhere. So it was this idea of leveraging government funding to get additional funding for different programs. So I mean, the reason why CETA ended is that it was really structurally impossible to evaluate CETA’s success or failure. And Carter, actually, President Carter increased CETA’s funding in 1977. But because the administrative structure was so decentralized, they could not effectively manage this expansion. They just had so much more money to employ so many more people, but without the actual structure to do that effectively. And so by the time the federal government re-centralized the jurisdiction over CETA in 1978, the program had largely lost political support. And yeah, I think that just goes back to the structure. Like I think the way that it was structured, it was really set up to fail. And it was federally funded, but everything about it was locally conceived. So it really led to a huge variation from programs that were exemplary in every sense of the word to programs that were totally corrupt, and not making use of the money received from the government to do anything worthwhile. So there was really such a large variation.
Billy Saas: Was it the fact that it was locally conceived that was the issue? Or was it more about not developing standards, metrics, oversight ahead of time, for those localized purposes, because it strikes me as entirely possible that local communities would have a pretty good idea of what they ought to be doing. But the problem of oversight not being addressed seems to kind of be a critical ingredient and setting it up to fail.
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): I agree. I think the oversight really was the central issue, because I think you’re right in that local communities definitely know what they need. But it depended on whomever that administrator was, and what their intentions were. Were they really going to work with the community to create a project that was valuable? Or were they going to use the money to basically employ people that would have been employed anyway to employ friends or relatives? And because of the way everything was organized, it’s really hard to know the degree to which that type of corruption took place because of the lack of oversight, but once you know some of that got into the news, it really started to create a lot of problems for CETA and people did not politically want to be attached to it anymore, because there wasn’t a way to ensure that that type of thing wasn’t happening due to the lack of oversight.
Scott Ferguson: So your research deals with the history and memory of CETA. Or maybe it’s better to put it as the lack of memory or the amnesia about CETA and the arts. You know, and I can say that as somebody who’s interested in the possibilities and complications for public employment across sectors, including the arts, I think that most Americans have this idea that the last time the federal government hired anybody to paint or perform anything was during the New Deal, and maybe during World War II. So I’m wondering, you know, what is the memory of CETA? You cite a fairly conservative economist Tyler Cowen, in your article, what does Tyler Cowen have to say about this? And why is reviving the memory of CETA Arts and Dance important for you?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): I think it’s important because I think it was misremembered. I think that through talking to people who participated in it, I just got a totally different sense than from anything that I’ve read, which had been written previously. So there was also a book written by Steven Dubin called Bureaucratizing the Muse, which was about the Chicago CETA arts program, and he was actually a participant observer in that program. And to him, it seemed like the artists were being used as boosters for the city, and really, their talents weren’t being fully used. And that’s the only monograph that had been written about CETA arts, and it had come out during the 80s. So that was one point of view. And another was just this idea of corruption, which was documented in popular news sources like the Reader’s Digest where Bennett, Ralph Kinney Bennett talked about, you know, just anyone could say they were an artist, and this was such a misuse of federal funds. And it was a joke on the truly disadvantaged, the poor. And he does bring up an important point, because I think there were problems in terms of using CETA funding to support people who were very highly educated and were also maybe had access to capital in other ways that weren’t able to be documented on a typical income employment sheet. So those types of conversations really dominated what was going on with CETA in terms of how it was remembered. And then Cowen was very dismissive. In his book, Good and Plenty, talking about the successes of US art funding, he was very dismissive of CETA. And he said, you know, by the time CETA came around, there were better methods for identifying talented artists than there were during the 1930s. And it really didn’t make a big difference in the field. And it was basically a, you know, a total waste of money. Because by then, people were able to identify talented artists and it wasn’t as dire of a situation economically as the Great Depression. So I just felt that CETA was really written off in a lot of regards, but then my lived experience of talking to dancers and artists, from different fields just told a totally different story. And, you know, I think that that’s why I wanted to bring this to the forefront because as you gestured towards having this sense of full employment, we’re having the possibility of the government employing artists and other types of workers. has been kind of dealt with in a dismissive way in some senses, and I just feel that that’s inaccurate. I feel that the impact of CETA goes well beyond the types of scholarship written by Cowen and others. Because it was really hard to track what CETA did. And that’s kind of part of what I’m trying to recover is figuring out how CETA impacts these people? And how can we tell the story so that we can start to recast the conversation and acknowledge that this important thing happened, and see where it fits into where we’re sitting today.
Billy Saas: We’ve talked a bit throughout our conversation today about you’re talking with people who actually experienced and worked in the CETA program or audiences for CETA programs. Could you talk a little bit more about your methods in this article that you circulated “Ballerinas on the Dole”? That’s the Ralph Kinney Bennett’s kind of dismissive remark about CETA programs. But could you talk a little bit more about your methods?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): So in terms of my methods for researching CETA, I did in depth, semi-structured interviews with a number of people, and I cast my net quite broadly in the beginning, and then obviously, I realized I had to at some point finish a project. So I had to focus then a little bit more in terms of geography and specific programs. But in terms of the interviews, I really, you know, would just talk to anyone who was artistically involved in CETA during that time period. So that meant that I talked to a lot of dancers. But I also talked to people who ran the visual arts programs in Philadelphia, I talked to a lot of administrators, which I think is not necessarily normal in terms of a Dance Studies project. But it definitely fits with my interest, because I think it’s important to understand how this program was conceived and how it was implemented, and how it fit within both the localized scene and then also this national conversation about CETA and the CETA arts programs. So I did a lot of interviewing of different artists and administrators. And then I went through the full archives at the New York City Municipal Archives, and it was like a 54 box collection that nobody had gone through prior to my dissertation research. So it was unprocessed. For those of you who may have an appreciation, what that means is basically, the papers just were, as they were donated to the municipal archives. So there’s a lot of information. But it was really a conversation between these interviews and the archives, and then obviously, a lot of secondary literature to help me try to contextualize the importance of both of those things. But yeah, those were primarily my methods. So I would say it’s like the qualitative interviewing process of the semi-structured, in depth time speaking with people in person as much as possible, but sometimes it was done over the phone. And then really, you know, diving into the archives, and using that as a way of gaining more knowledge and building upon interviews, which were talking about something that happened 40 years ago. So it was kind of a balance between those two methods.
Maxx Seijo: So before we wrap up, we wanted to ask what projects you’re currently working on whether they be scholarly or aesthetic in nature?
Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Well, I’m currently working on a book project. And I’m looking at this project of CETA, as we’ve been discussing, and I’ve expanded to also examine the WPA Works Progress Administration Federal Dance Theater, during the 1930s. So my working title is Dance From Labor to Service from 1935 to 1982. And it’s comparing dance as work in the 1930s to dance as service in the 1970s. And thinking about how dance redefines the concept of work. So I had the opportunity this summer to do research in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. So I was there for about a month in the archives and just really going into the administrative files of the Federal Dance Theater and the Federal Theater Project and also the different specific choreographers, papers, and really diving into what’s there and kind of looking at it from this other perspective. So that’s what I’m up to. So I’m doing a comparative study, and I’m kind of right in the midst of it right now. So I’m trying to make sense of all of this archival material, and looking for different ways to theoretically frame what is important about these two periods. I’m focusing on making connections between labor policy, federal arts funding and the Dance field. And aesthetically, I continue to choreograph. And I’m really focusing on the book project right now, but I’ve choreographed different pieces in the past couple of years. Focusing on ideas of outer space on ideas of humanity, kind of a little broader themes, but that’s what I’ve been working on right now.
Scott Ferguson: Well, Colleen, we wish you the best of luck. Thank you so much for joining us and definitely keep us posted on the progress of your research.Colleen Hooper (@hoopercolleen): Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.