“What role, if any, do art and artists play during times of crisis?” asked art historian Jody Patterson in a recent piece published by “ARTnews.”


I didn’t ask that question in those exact words of the four artists that I recently interviewed for this column, but all of them addressed the importance of the arts at such a critical moment.


In her piece, Patterson explores the longstanding tensions between exclusivity and accessibility in the art world and discusses the role of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP) during the 1930s.


It might seem remarkable today that the U.S. federal government would actually increase arts funding as one response to a severed economic downturn, but that’s what happened under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


“Many Americans encountered their first original artworks, received their first art instruction, listened to their first concerts, and attended their first theater performances under the auspices of government-sponsored cultural projects,” writes Patterson.


Patterson does not argue for a new federal program like the FAP, but she does argue for FDR’s vision of the arts as inclusive and accessible. We should see the FAP as “inspiration for how we might adapt the arts once the new challenge of the coronavirus pandemic is overcome.”


I read Patterson’s piece only because it was linked on the Telfair Museums’ Facebook page. Like museums around the world, the Telfair is looking for ways to navigate in uncharted waters.


The Telfair recently launched Telfair Today, a new web initiative to encourage online visitors to interact with exhibits, programs and pieces in the permanent collection.


Earlier this week, the museum published an engaging virtual tour with curator Courtney McNeil of the exhibition “Launching Savannah’s Art Scene: Founders of the Savannah Art Club.”


The short video gives an overview of the importance of the club that survives 100 years later as the Savannah Art Association.


I would have liked the option of viewing a longer video with closer looks at individual pieces, but online visitors can also scroll through some high-quality photos of paintings like Emma Cheves Wilkins’ lush still life “Playing with Reds” (c. 1931) and Eliot Candee Clark’s “Smoke Plumes of Savannah” (c. 1924 - 1925).


Telfair Today also links to more than 800 images from the permanent collection, which includes more than 7,000 pieces at the nonprofit’s three locations. https://collections.telfair.org/collections


The pandemic is forcing us to think about the different roles of art in our society, and I am excited to see where the new efforts at the Telfair and other museums lead.


Bill Dawers writes City Talk in Savannah Morning News and blogs at hissing lawns (www.hissinglawns.com). Email billdawers@comcast.net.


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