What a Deal

During good times, it seems only fitting that we remind ourselves how bad times once were and could become again. This weekend academics from all over the country will flock to Miami to discuss just that -- the good and bad old days -- at Perspectives on New Deal America: History, Art, Architecture, and Public Policy, a symposium conceived by the Wolfsonian-FIU to coincide with its exhibition of Depression-era art, "Public Works."

What's to know about the New Deal? A lot, apparently, according to Wolfsonian-FIU director Cathy Leff: "There's something in this [symposium] for everyone," says Leff effusively. "People are really going to be able to get a good idea of what Roosevelt's New Deal really was."

For the uninitiated, the New Deal is the name for Franklin Roosevelt's program of domestic relief and recovery that was carried out from 1933 to 1941. Under the guidance of agencies such as the Works Progress Administration, bridges, buildings, and roads were constructed; surroundings were beautified.

The most visible and lasting effect of Roosevelt's genius is the connection created between art and everyday life. Because of the plan's cultural programs, the arts no longer occupied a rarefied domain. Thousands of works, including murals and paintings, were commissioned by the Federal Art Project to decorate public buildings. The Federal Music Project put thousands of performers to work in ensembles that performed regular concerts. The Federal Writers Project yielded the American Guide series, authoritative guidebooks to every state in the union.

"So much of the country was transformed," notes Joel Hoffman, associate director of academic programs and administration at the Wolfsonian-FIU, who coordinated the symposium. "It was a period of incredible hardship and incredible hope. People had nothing, and there was the government helping them out."

The many ways in which the government assisted its citizens will be one of the many topics in a weekend's worth of discussions. On Friday at 7:00 p.m. the symposium opens with "Government Art Projects in the 1930s," a lecture by Marlene Park, professor of art history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and CUNY Graduate Center.

On Saturday Michael Denning, professor of American Studies at Yale University, will deliver the first lecture, "The Laboring of American Culture." Then three different panels will be moderated by FIU personnel. At 10:30 a.m. "Poverty and Employment Policy: The New Deal and the New Millennium" will be discussed. A dialogue about "Images of Class and Gender in New Deal Public Art " begins at at 1:30 p.m. And at 3:45 p.m. "Constructing the New Deal" will be the focus. All panelists will participate in a closing exchange at 5:45 p.m.

Other than a renewed appreciation for how bountiful the world is now compared to during the Depression, what can attendees expect to gain from this immersion in the New Deal? According to Hoffman: "A stronger knowledge of how all aspects of culture and society can combine; an interesting lens through which to view things happening in contemporary society, such as the cutbacks in the arts; and a better understandingof the many ways in which [the Wolfsonian-FIU] collection can be interpreted."

-- Nina Korman

Perspectives on New Deal America will take place Friday at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. (with a break for lunch) at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Admission is free and seating is on a limited first-come-first-served basis. Reservations for Saturday's program are suggested and will be held only until 9:15 a.m. Call 535-2622.