No artist left behind

A new WPA program for local artists?

OPINION Thirty-three years ago, San Francisco in its inimitable fashion paved the way for a national movement to use federal jobs money to hire artists to work in schools, community centers and gardens, daycare and senior facilities, and jails. The CETA Arts Program was administered through the Neighborhood Arts Program of the San Francisco Art Commission. CETA stood for the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, passed into law under the Nixon administration and kicked into high gear under President Ford because of the high unemployment rate in 1974-75.

A splendidly bright fellow named John Kreidler figured out that artists were a highly unemployed and underemployed category in the workforce, and that these federal funds could be appropriately used to hire them to work in the community.

I was hired under this program as administrator for the fledgling Pickle Family Circus. Also employed were the acclaimed clown trio of Larry Pisoni, Bill Irwin, and Geoff Hoyle. I met a CETA poet and community gardener named Ann Kyle. We got married in 1977 (at the Pickle Family Circus on Potrero Hill) and had two CETA-era children. I also ran for the Board of Supervisors out of my Bernal Heights garage that year. The CETA Arts Program, it can be said, employed hungry artists, educated students, started circuses, encouraged family formation, and fostered civic engagement. All good for a vibrant democracy and healthy economy.

The public money also helped people move into the private sector. Take the case of Bill Irwin. "Willie the Clown" was a bicycle messenger when first hired by the Pickles. Two years ago, Irwin won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his performance in the Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Today, with the American economy in the proverbial toilet, President-elect Barack Obama and Congress are promoting a multibillion dollar jobs stimulus package. In the litany of likely applications, we read about employing people to repair bridges, roads, schools, and sewers.

In the tradition of the 1930s-era WPA and the 1970s-era CETA Arts, we hope to add working artists to the roster of those who strengthen the nation's infrastructure. Spearheaded by San Franciscans with spirited and creative allies all across America, a National Campaign to Hire Artists to Work in Schools has been formed. The effort has caught on like wildfire among artists, arts advocates, and arts educators.

Art forms such as music, theater, dance, mural painting, and poetry have proven to inspire students to delight in learning, and bring children of diverse economic and racial backgrounds on collaborative common ground.

The campaign also embraces the concept of a National Green Arts Corps to provide neighborhoods and community-based artists with the resources, training, and skills to use the arts to build community life and create green jobs.

We are bringing our case to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Obama transition team, the labor and education secretaries-designate, the 50 governors and state legislatures, and city leaders. Come join the campaign and return a strong dose of imagination to America in 2009.

For more information, visit the Campaign Web site at, join our Facebook site, and vote for us in the contest for best Ideas to Change America at

Michael Nolan, a Bernal Heights resident since 1970, was a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and co-founder of the Pickle Family Circus.