Troy D. Plumer

Troy D. Plumer

Art @ Our Heart: FDR’s WPA in the USA

“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780

“The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration is a practical relief project which also emphasizes the best tradition of the democratic spirit.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Radio Address Dedication of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, May 10, 1939

Art was the point of it all. Woven into our very origin story as a country. A “right.” The thing that would show we had arrived as a nation taking up an honored place on the international scene. A hallmark of democracy.

A brief history: as an attempt to address both the basic needs of artists and to promote a unifying theme around democracy in order to counteract rising totalitarianism abroad as war clouds gathered in Europe and Asia, $27 million dollars was approved in 1935, (over half a billion dollars in 2022 valuation), under the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA’s) Federal Project Number One (Federal One). The project was divided into five groups: The Federal Art Project, The Federal Music Project, The Federal Theatre Project, The Federal Writers’ Project, and The Historical Records Survey (originally part of the Federal Writers’ Project).

Photograph of sculptor Jeno Juszko with his bronze bust of General George Henry Thomas, one of five busts of Civil War generals commissioned for the crypt of Grant's Tomb as part of the WPA renovation
Sculptor Jeno Juszko with his bronze bust of General George Henry Thomas, one of five busts of Civil War generals commissioned for the crypt of Grant's Tomb as part of the WPA renovation, 1939. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Federal One had two main principles: 

    1. That in time of need the artist, no less than the manual worker, is entitled to employment as an artist at the public expense and;
    2. That the arts, no less than business, agriculture, and labor, are and should be the immediate concern of the ideal commonwealth.
Black-and-white photograph of two men in Shakespearean garb dueling
"Macbeth," by the WPA Negro Theatre Unit, NY. Photo by Franklin D. Roosevelt, c. 1935. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Public Library.

It is worth noting that at a time of horrific bigotry of all forms, all projects were supposed to operate without discrimination regarding race, creed, color, religion, or political affiliation. Such progressive outlooks were in keeping with the nation’s founding principles of the French Enlightenment and were, in and of themselves, mileposts pointing toward the Civil Rights movements ahead in the decades following WWII.

With key champions like Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, at its peak Federal One employed some 40,000 writers, musicians, artists, and actors. According to the Washington State Project, based out of the University of Washington, The Federal Art Project alone produced over 2,500 murals, 108,000 paintings, 17,700 sculptures, 11,200 print designs, and 35,000 posters for the Index of American Design along with innumerable other objects of craft: “Artists supported by the FAP were active in a wide variety of areas, including traditional pursuits, like easel painting, as well as more novel (for the era) fields like community education and the documentation of folk art” (Mahoney, Washington State Project). 

The Federal Writers’ Project employed many authors known and read today, such as John Steinbeck and Zora Neale Hurston. Steinbeck himself was known for poring over the contents of one of the 48 WPA guides, calling them “the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together … compiled… by the best writers in America” (PBS.) Hurston’s essay, “Turpentine,” is still considered the authoritative work on turpentine camps in Florida to this day.

While some elements like the Federal Writers’ Project continued until 1943, under pressure from Congress, Federal One ended in 1939 after four years in operation. Congress cited complaints from both sides of the political spectrum. From the Left came cries of censorship from actors in the Theatre Project. From the Right, complaints from what would later become the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC,) that the program had become infiltrated and influenced by “communists.” Even with that ending, the noble impulses of Federal One continue to this day in the form of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of " of a nation" at the Adelphi Theatre, showing drawing of urban row houses.
Federal Theatre Project presentation of " of a nation," 1935-1939. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.
Poster of Adelphi Theatre's production of "It Can't Happen Here," with the outline of the Statue of Liberty in blue and red
Adelphi Theatre's dramatization of Sinclair Lewis & J.C. Moffitt's "It Can't Happen Here," 1936 or 1937. Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

The power and the promise of the art generated under the auspices of the Federal Art Project are with us as icons to this day. From Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother to the nascent modernist stylings of a young Jackson Pollock, the artists of the Federal Art Project and the other projects grouped under the WPA’s Federal One effort fanned out across a Depression-ravaged America and sought to make sense of both her origins and her promise in the face of a world gone mad with rising authoritarianism.

Art, then as now, is simultaneously meal and recipe, compass and map, sword and shield. We know this to be true on a level so deeply rooted in our individual and shared psyches that it is often lost in our subconscious, becoming the background to our lives in the form of the movies we enjoy, the concerts we attend, the books that act as the best of friends, and the fine arts that inspire us to see, as Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address would highlight, the very “…better angels of our nature(s).”

Harry Sternberg, "The Family Industry and Agriculture" WPA mural in the Ambler, Pennsylvania Post Office, 1939. Courtesy James Vaughan and Wikimedia Commons.
General Manager

Elena K. Holy is proud to join the 4A movement as General Manager. Her 30+ year arts management career includes NYC’s non-profit Roundabout Theatre Company, commercial Broadway and Off-Broadway at Richard Frankel Productions, and founding and running The Present Theatre Company,  where she co-created the New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). FringeNYC was once the largest multi-arts festival in North America – with an all-volunteer staff of 100 people, 2500+ additional volunteers, and 5000 artists representing 200 companies from all over the world, and producing nearly 1100 performances annually, with many now-famous alumni and productions.

As Producer, Holy was awarded the 1997 New York Magazine Award for her “creativity, vision and enterprise”. In 2006, she was named one of New York Magazine’s “Influentials” because she “turned the Fringe Festival, which she founded in 1996, into Sundance for the theater crowd – a place where anyone with an idea and a tiny budget can get noticed. Urinetown, the 1999 Fringe musical that made it to Broadway and won three Tonys, is the most extreme example, but more than a dozen Fringe shows have gone on to significant Off Broadway runs. Her triumph: retaining the fest’s brilliant lunacy amid commercial success.”

Other achievements include the 2007 Mayor’s Award for Arts & Culture, serving as a Tony Awards Nominator from 2008, and being named an Indie Theater Hall of Fame “Person of the Decade” in 2015. As FringeNYC ended (and the pandemic began) she became Interim Managing Director at SHADOWLAND STAGES in beautiful Ellenville, New York where she and husband Kevin share a home with their two westies, Daisy and JuneBug. She serves as Treasurer for the local Chamber of Commerce and is an active member of her community.

Communications and Marketing Coordinator

Working as the Communications and Marketing Coordinator of 4A Arts fulfills Alex Carrillo’s dream to bring his knowledge of the entertainment industry to the broader arts and culture world. Born in Oakland, CA and raised in the Tri-Cities of Washington state, Alex envisaged himself exiting generational poverty and eventually working in the music industry.

After high school, without scholarships, funding, or other support to help him reach his goals, he enlisted in the U.S. military in 2013, joining the Army Infantry. Alex received his basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia before being stationed in Fort Drum, New York, where he proudly became a member of 4-31 Charlie Company, the Mountain Division (the world’s best kept secret). In 2015, Alex was deployed to Afghanistan in a classified combat war zone through early  2016. 

After his time in the service, Alex returned home to seek his college degree. He enrolled at The Los Angeles Recording School, a division of the Los AngelesFilm School, where he received his associate’s degree in Music Production and bachelor’s  in Entertainment Business. 

While still studying at the L.A. Recording School,  Alex landed a publishing deal with Position Music, earning his music a place in the Netflix movie Moxie and in the video game NBA2k22 with his album Locked In. 

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree, Alex began working on the business side of the industry, managing artists, performing social and digital marketing, and distribution, among other duties. Alex joined 4A Arts in the summer of 2022, bringing those talents to the nonprofit world.

Director of Research and Operations

Whitney S. Christiansen is a native Kentuckian with an interdisciplinary background in arts, education, and advocacy. She spent nearly a decade teaching secondary English and drama in public schools, receiving a master’s in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Louisville in 2017, where she received that year’s Grady Nutt Award for the year’s most creative directed study project, “Summoned,” an interdisciplinary practicum that combined research on medieval morality plays and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus with contemporary concepts of costume and set design. From 2009-2015 she was a cast member and later director for the Kentucky Highland Renaissance Festival, where she inaugurated and directed the festival’s teen cast, who developed two stage shows in the commedia dell’arte tradition. 

Leaving the classroom in 2019, Whitney received her second master’s degree from Colorado State University in Arts Leadership and Cultural Management, where she began working with Be An #ArtsHero, a grassroots campaign dedicated to bringing COVID relief to Arts Workers (now Arts Workers United.) She was the researcher on staff for AWU’s lobbying team for the U.S. House Small Business Committee’s January 2022 hearing on the creative economy, and for Ovation TV’s The Green Room with Nadia Brown, an educational comedy show about the creative economy that launched in March of 2022. Formerly the general manager of the Center for Music Ecosystems, Whitney heads up 4A Arts’ new research initiative alongside her work managing central operations.

executive director

Actor, entrepreneur, political strategist, and father of two, Gavin Lodge comes to 4A Arts with a unique perspective on arts and culture in America. A 20-year veteran of stage and screen, Gavin grew up in suburban Colorado and traversed the country in his work with political campaigns at the senate and presidential levels as well as touring for shows.

After studying international affairs and philosophy at the University of Colorado, he worked as a field organizer in the Iowa Caucus followed by the role of “body guy” to then-candidate Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State. Politics empowered him to move to New York City to pursue a performing career. Ultimately, he performed in multiple Broadway shows (including 42nd Street, Spamalot, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) as well as regional theater, national tours and several network television appearances.

Though he was thrilled every time he stepped onto a theatrical or sound stage, Gavin was equally happy to take on leadership roles in his local union and later his kids’ PTA.  

With the Covid-19 pandemic, Gavin jumped back into the political realm, working as a strategist for Bryson Gillette, a minority-owned PR firm focused on politics and public affairs. He also volunteered for Be an #ArtsHero, an arts advocacy movement blossoming during the first few months of the pandemic. During his time with Be an #ArtsHero, he was part of a team that successfully lobbied for a first-of-its-kind hearing on the creative economy in front of the House of Representatives Small Business Committee.

Gavin lives in rural Connecticut with his partner (a composer and orchestral conductor), his TikTok-dancing daughter (who is musically gifted in unparalleled ways) and his soccer-playing son who recently told him “Dad? I’m just not into concerts and theater stuff.” As he told his son, Gavin believes there is much more to American arts and culture than “concerts and theater stuff.” From the video games his son loves to play to low-rider paint jobs to streaming television series while sitting on the couch, Gavin sees American arts and culture as an inclusive, “big tent” spectrum where everyone is an artist and everyone is a member of an audience.