There are so many reasons to celebrate what the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) did for the arts in the 1970s, but it’s difficult because the evidence is practically invisible. CETA was a federal jobs program that, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) before it, funneled many hundreds of millions of dollars to visual and performing artists. But unlike the WPA, CETA was decentralized, administered from 1974 to 1981 by local city and county agencies all over the country, so the records are scattered and hard to find. And because it was a jobs program, CETA funded positions in community organizations, which produced skills but not many long-lasting artworks. CETA is so invisible it is almost ahistorical.

The WPA and other New Deal arts programs of the 1930s left behind a large number of artworks in schools, libraries, train depots, hospitals, community centers, and other public agencies: some 1,400 murals, 50,000 paintings, 90,000 prints, 3,700 sculptures, 975 large dioramas and models, 40,000 maps and diagrams, 15,000 lantern slides, 52,000 arts and crafts objects, nearly 500,000 photos, and 850,000 poster reproductions, according to art historian Francis O’Connor.

In comparison, CETA left behind relatively few surviving artworks, like the tile murals in the Clark Street subway arcade in New York City, some of the murals created for the Baltimore Mural Program, and a few collections of sculptures, paintings, and other artworks in select cities across the country. More often, however, artists were put to work in public service projects that left no visual record, though they left a mark on their communities.

CETA’s direct benefits to artists included not only training and financial support, but also abundant experience working in schools, hospitals, libraries, community centers, even on city buses. Indeed, CETA “helped establish artists working within labor unions, impoverished inner city neighborhoods, prisons, geriatric facilities, and other non-art settings,” explains arts writer Gregory Sholette.

The Federal Artist, a film by Emilio Murillo (1979, Blowback Productions), documents the New York Artists Project, in which more than 600 artists were employed in public service through CETA. The program focused on teaching, performance, and other programming specifically aimed at “the poor, the sick, the institutionalized—people for whom art is usually inaccessible.” Among the projects depicted in the film are Johan Sellenraad’s redesign of a city subway station, street tap dancing from Charles Cook and Jane Goldberg, and other projects staged in prisons, preschools, hospitals, and senior citizen centers.

Many CETA artists went on to collaborate with their own communities later in their careers. “There is scarcely a U.S. community artist who was around in the mid-1970s who did not either hold a CETA job or work directly with someone who did,” writes arts administrator Arlene Goldbard.

Even more interesting, CETA provided training for thousands of people not only in art-making, but also in administration and technical support to the arts. CETA coincided with the artist-run “alternative arts organization” movement of the 1970s, and many of those organizations hired their first paid staff with CETA money. Such undertakings were often small but ambitious, and many are still in existence today.

The Painted Bride Art Center, for instance, began in Philadelphia in 1969 as a cooperative gallery of painters. It was located in a former bridal salon on South Street, between the affluent Society Hill section and the struggling Black community. But it wasn’t until 1977 that the Bride was able, with the award of a CETA contract, to hire its first paid staff, with six employees taking responsibility for administration, theater management, promotion, fundraising, and maintenance. Today the Painted Bride is still going strong and bills itself as “the primary venue for the emerging, independent visual and performing arts in the greater Philadelphia region.”

Jack Becker, founder of Forecast Public Art in St. Paul (which publishes Public Art Review), credits CETA funding for the foundation of Forecast. Becker was hired as a CETA artist in 1977 by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Minneapolis Arts Commission (MAC). Melisande Charles, director of MAC, “got CETA money for an artists’ jobs program,” Becker told MN Artists in 2007, “and she hired me to be the ‘gallery director.’ But I didn’t have a gallery. I had a desk and a phone at City Hall. We paid artists—they spent half-time in the studio, and half-time in the community. There were poets on the bus, artists in day-care centers, art in storefronts.” After CETA funding ended, some of those artists decided to continue working together and they started the nonprofit organization that became Forecast.

Becker’s is only one of many similar stories of CETA spawning new organizations. CETA also ignited unique partnerships between municipal agencies and nonprofit organizations. When CETA money passed from the federal government to local city agencies and commissions, they were able to contract with local organizations.

In Baltimore, for instance, CETA funded a project through the city’s Metropolitan Manpower Consortium and the Mayor’s Office of Manpower Resources, organizations that contracted with the Baltimore Theatre Project to hire artists to gather Baltimore’s oral history and present it onstage. Artists associated with the Theatre Project reported developing a “particularly successful working relationship with its prime sponsor, who initiated and encouraged several of their collaborative projects,” according to one CETA assessment. The Baltimore Theatre Project is alive and well today, with ongoing, sustaining support from the Mayor’s Office and the City Council.

While most CETA records are scattered in archives across the country, there does exist a report evaluating CETA, prepared in 1981 for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) by Morgan Management Systems, Inc., in Columbia, Maryland. “The CETA Arts and Humanities Experience” created detailed case studies on 15 CETA projects. (These were edited and published online as a set of e-books in 2011 by Steven Durland and me, and are available from the Amazon Kindle Store.)

This study cites the fact that CETA was not specifically designed to support the arts. It was a jobs program, designed to provide training for the unemployed and underemployed. It took an arts administrator, John Kreidler, to discover in 1974 a way to channel some of CETA’s millions to the arts.

“Kreidler worked with the Neighborhood Arts Program [San Francisco] for five months, and played a key advocacy role for the CETA funding of artists’ positions within NAP and in other agencies in the city,” the study explains. “He consequently authored proposals for funding such positions, and the San Francisco CETA prime sponsor, impressed with the organization and intent of the proposal, soon gave its formal approval for funding.”

Kreidler’s initiative spread quickly across the arts community, and arts organizations learned how to decipher CETA and other government programs, obtain grants, administer them, and reap their benefits. The skills acquired during this process have contributed to the stability of many key artists’ organizations.

CETA’s most important impact, according to the DOL study, was on existing cultural programming across the U.S. The program helped to solidify existing links between various local organizations and political departments like parks and recreation, housing authorities, and so on, while also spreading the adoption of proven formulas like the Artists in Schools programs. Other positive impacts included economic and cultural development, an increasing understanding of culture as industry, mutual respect among participants, and the transfer of cultural skills to other occupational areas.

At its height, the CETA federal jobs training program funneled some $200 million a year ($800 million a year in today’s dollars) into the pockets of individual artists, arts organizations, and their community partners. In 1981, the year the study made that financial estimate, the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was just under $159 million; in 2016 the NEA budget is just under $149 million. In some ways, CETA was the largest government arts funding program in history—and its legacy is even bigger.

Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland are the editors and publishers of CETA and the Arts, a two-volume e-book available from the Amazon Kindle Store. Burnham and Durland were the editors of High Performance magazine, executive officers of the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica, CA, and founders of Art in the Public Interest and the Community Arts Network. Their latest project is the Woodland Banners Poetry Walk on their own property in Saxapahaw, North Carolina.

Featured in Public Art Review #54.