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The economic stimulus package includes $50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. It's money that some members of Congress didn't think belonged in there at all. A timely new show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum looks at the first time that thousands of artists got direct government support. It's called "1934: A New Deal for Artists." NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Just like today, President Franklin Roosevelt got some flack for wanting to include artists in his relief program.

Ms. BETSY BROUN (Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum): When people challenged why would he support artists, he said, they're workers and they have to eat, too.

BLAIR: Betsy Broun, director of the Smithsonian's American Art Museum says you can almost tell the artists were grateful from what they produced. There's a vibrant painting of a nighttime baseball game in West Nyack, New York, an almost regal portrait of African-American cotton pickers, and a wide-view painting of the Golden Gate Bridge being built.

Ms. ANN WAGNER (Curator, the New Deal Show): And this was something that the country and California in particular were very, very proud of.

BLAIR: Ann Wagner is one of the curators of the New Deal Show.

Ms. WAGNER: When you got along to 1933, 1934, this hard winter that people weren't sure they could get through, there was a lot of down-heartedness and a lot of despair and shame at being on government relief.

BLAIR: Wagner says the program produced more than 15,000 works, all of them intended for public places: post offices, libraries, hospitals.

Ms. WAGNER: These kinds of works showed people that there was plenty to be proud of in their home areas - not just that they had good artists, but the artists were showing what the people were doing. They were showing the local landscapes and the local businesses.

BLAIR: The success of the program led to more government work for artists during the Depression. Accomplished photographers like Dorothea Lang were sent out specifically to document the effects of the Depression on rural America. One result was Dorothea's Lang iconic photography, "Migrant Mother." In a 1964 interview with the Smithsonian, Lang said the people she photographed were often grateful she was there to tell their stories.

Ms. DOROTHEA LANG (Photographer): It very often meant a lot that the government in Washington was aware enough even to send you out. And there were times along then when the photographs were used in Congress, so that you could truthfully say that there were some channels whereby it could be told - not about them, but about people like them.

Ms. BROUN: Looking back on the legacy of the '30s programs, what we see is they gave us back to ourselves.

BLAIR: Smithsonian American Art Museum Director Betsy Broun points out that FDR once said: 100 years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief.

Today, when it comes to arts money and the economic stimulus, the expectations are different. Artists need to prove their creations will pump money into the local economy. Like it or not, the New Deal did validate the role of artists in American society. Then and now, government is okay giving money to artists, so long as the artists give the country something practical in return.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find a gallery of images from that Smithsonian exhibition, plus an excerpt from an archival interview with photographer Dorothea Lang at npr.org.

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