The spouse and I went to Mt. Morris, New York, because it is a jumping off place for the beautiful waterfalls of Letchworth State Park. Only after we got to Mt. Morris did we learn that it has a unique art trove. A tuberculosis hospital complex opened on a hilltop there in 1936. The planning for it began when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was governor of New York, and Eleanor Roosevelt had a particular interest in the sanitarium. To brighten the lives of the 200 adult and 50 children patients, she had art created by the Works Progress Administration placed in the rooms.

The sanitarium closed in 1971, and the five buildings and the land were sold to Livingston County, New York, for a dollar a year later. The WPA art, over 230 paintings as well as sculptures and murals, became the property of the federal government’s General Services Administration but remained on what had been the tuberculosis campus. Livingston County partnered with the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts to create an exhibition space for the art in what had been four apartments for the tuberculosis doctors and their families. This gallery contains the largest collection of WPA art in any one place.

 The Art Gallery is open to the public and free. My guess is that, at least in September, it does not get many visitors. When the spouse and I entered we initially saw no one. We wandered through four or five rooms looking at paintings. About half were painted under the WPA, and the rest were by local artists and for sale. We were about to go when the spouse startled a person working in what might have originally been a closet. We asked her questions, but she said this was only her second day on the job writing grants for the art council and had much to learn about the history of the place.

We poked around a bit more when a man appeared. He, like men in the antique shops we had met the day before, was retired. In fact, he said, he had been retired several times. He had worked as a graphic artist for General Motors in nearby Rochester, New York. With a note of bitterness, he indicated that perhaps this retirement had not really been voluntary, but I did not inquire further. He then worked at a printing company, and apparently, he left there voluntarily. He also said that at local fairs and other events he sold tee shirts with wildlife images he had created and printed. Clearly proud of this art, he said, “I put three kids through college doing this.” (I was struck by this pronouncement because I had heard two other artists say almost the same thing in the preceding month. Both were musicians based in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Neither was nationally known, but both made a living from their music, and said that they had put their children through college with their guitar playing.)

The man in the gallery now volunteered with the arts council several days a week coming over from his home in nearby Nunda. (The spouse and I had driven through this crossroad village, which we had pronounced Nun-Duh. He told us it was pronounced Nun-Day. I have yet to find a way to introduce this new-found knowledge into a conversation.)

Like the retired men in the Mt. Morris antique stores, he wanted to talk, and we learned a lot from him about the history of the campus after its decommissioning as a TB institution. He talked about a vibrant arts community in the Genesee Valley. He explained that the gallery had the space to display only a fraction of the WPA art at any one time, that the displayed paintings were changed several times a year, and that some of the paintings needed restoration. He told us that the council was now collaborating with a local college to digitize and catalog all the paintings with a goal of having images of all the art online, and, perhaps, then prints of them would be for sale. (The spouse had especially liked one WPA painting and had asked if there were any prints of it for sale. I had liked a painting of a cow by a local artist, but I would have had to return at the end of the exhibition’s run to get it if I bought it. It would have been a long way to go for $150 painting.)

Going through the gallery, I thought about the Works Progress Administration and what it produced. I am no art critic, but the paintings seemed to be of mixed quality, and only a fraction of them may be truly lasting art. On the other hand, the WPA did many other things, including building roads, bridges, and parks in almost every American community during the Great Depression, many of which we continue to use. We had seen beautiful stonework in Letchworth State Park, and we were told that most of it had been built during the Depression. The WPA gave jobs to those who then needed them and gave us today a rich legacy.

This country has changed. Our government during the Great Recession of a decade ago did authorize work on our infrastructure but not nearly enough to meet our country’s needs. Conservatives fought to keep the funding low maintaining that the resulting deficits would be harmful. They had no sense of irony when they made these arguments even though they had assured there would be major budget deficits without infrastructure spending.

Eight years earlier the conservatives had inherited a budget with a hefty surplus. They did not pay down the debt; they did not undertake needed governmental projects. Instead they enacted rounds of tax cuts even though economists said that these would cause large deficits. But conservatives then followed the lead of Vice President Dick Cheney who was reported to announce, “Deficits don’t matter.” The deficits grew enormously; income inequality followed.

Deficits did not matter to conservatives when Bush was president and tax cuts were on the table. The deficits, however, did concern them when Obama took office and the country could have benefited dramatically from increased infrastructure spending. Only a limited amount of funding was authorized, even though our infrastructure cries out for help and even though would have given jobs to workers. Deficits apparently don’t matter when the issue is tax cuts; otherwise they do.

(continued October 18)

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