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Program putting artists to work during pandemic takes leaf from the past


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now we take a very different look at the pandemic and how the arts are trying to weather the economic storm.

From January to June of this from January to June of this year, consumer spending on the performing arts fell from almost $27 billion to just $817 million.

Now a pilot program in Massachusetts looks to ideas from the past to hopefully ensure the arts' future.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen GBH Boston reports.

It's part of our American Creators series and ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: There's a stillness to this land, where the rawness of the woods meets manicured beauty. Except for a fountain, there is quiet, just the way novelist Edith Wharton wanted it.

Susan Wissler: When a cold frost would kill her favorite trees, it was like losing a child. I mean, she was deeply, deeply and instinctively, I would say, connected to nature.

Jared Bowen: Susan Wissler is executive director of The Mount, the home and gardens Edith Wharton designed herself after purchasing this property in 1901.

It's tucked into the rolling hills of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. And Wharton wrote some of her most celebrated works here, including "Ethan Frome" and "The House of Mirth."

Susan Wissler: There's a scene in "The House of Mirth."

Lily Bart is at a house party on the Hudson. And the view that she describes out of her window when she wakes up is very much Wharton's view from her bedroom window.

Lia Russel-Self: There's so much space for thoughts with all this inspiration.

Jared Bowen: Today, it's writer Lia Russell-Self, who uses the pronoun they, who is guided by this space. It's also now their job, as part of a privately funded, national pilot program called Artists At Work.

It was set up during the pandemic to give six artists employment in cultural institutions across the Berkshires. Others include a choreographer working with the dance festival Jacob's Pillow, a filmmaker joining an independent movie theater, and a visual artist teaming with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary art, all in rural Western Massachusetts.

Each artist has the freedom to develop any project they want for a six-month residency.

Rachel Chanoff: The artists are being paid to just make the beautiful work they make as artists that helps us all make meaning of the world. And they're also paid to bring their thinking to social initiatives.

Jared Bowen: Rachel Chanoff is director of THE OFFICE, a for-profit New York- and London-based performing arts and film production company that conceived the artists-for-hire pilot and pays each of the artists a living wage and provides them health care while in the program.

Rachel Chanoff: The reason we didn't want to make it a grant, we wanted to make it a wage, is so that they would -- at post-program, they would be eligible for unemployment.

Jared Bowen: Chanoff proudly acknowledges that paying artists who found themselves jobless or struggling financially during the pandemic is entirely unoriginal.

Its roots are in the WPA, the Works Progress Administration established during the Great Depression. It employed thousands of artists teaching art classes, creating theater, painting murals and documenting the country through photography. It fueled the careers of figures like actor, writer and director Orson Welles, painter Jacob Lawrence, and sculptor Louise Nevelson.

When did you recognize it worked during the WPA and putting artists to work in this country?

Rachel Chanoff: Was a time where artists were recognized as workers.

Artists are so often thought of as kind of the garnish on the plate and the luxury item. When artists are unemployed, you have unemployed people who are on their way to becoming poor people.

Lia Russel-Self: To have like six months of, this is your salary, this is what you have got, and if something happens to you, you can -- you can go see a doctor, which is not a luxury I have had for quite a while.

Jared Bowen: In non-pandemic times, people flock to the Berkshires in the summertime for world-class concerts, art exhibitions, and theater. It's a feast for those craving culture.

But, here, Russell-Self feels most at home because of the landscape. And their project for the pilot program is to work with young people of color to explore and strengthen their ties to this land.

They regularly walk Edith Wharton's one-time estate with groups like The Rusty Anvil, which connects marginalized communities to nature.

Ultimately, Russell-Self wants to make this a destination for other people of color who might not always feel welcome in predominantly white spaces like The Mount. And the artists will write a collection of poetry inspired by the experience.

Susan Wissler: I don't know how the independent artists are going to sustain and endure through this period.

Jared Bowen: Throughout the pandemic, The Mount has had to suspend programs that would normally give artists a platform. And that's the situation nationwide, with countless artists among the unemployed and without a sense of when or if their jobs will return.

Lia Russel-Self: I'm used to working a few different gigs, a few different projects to try and, like, piece everything together. That's totally not possible now.

Jared Bowen: Which is why the pilot's organizers are hoping it can be replicated around the country, where Rachel Chanoff says she knows artists can shape our economic recovery, if they're just given the means.

Rachel Chanoff: We're hoping that this is -- really changes the conversation, changes the conversation about the impact and the utility of arts. It's that art impacts mental health and food systems and economies.

Art is a crucial part of our endeavor as a commonwealth. And that's where the conversation needs to look.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: And we thank you, Jared Bowen.

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