Key West tour highlights WPA’s role in arts, culture

skinney@keynoter.comJuly 4, 2009 

Key West has a rich cultural and artistic past and present that is sometimes overshadowed by the lure of the Duval Crawl; but, some locals are working hard to preserve what they see as the Southernmost City’s finest attraction: art and artists.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, all classes of American society fell upon hard times. In Key West, a mixture of isolation and limited resources combined to make the 1930s particularly hard down here at the end of the road.

In that decade, Key West had an average unemployment rate of 85 percent compared to a national average of 35 percent. Enter Franklin Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration.

“Roosevelt believed if you saved the economy but not the culture, you weren’t saving anything,” said Nance Frank, founder of the Florida Keys Council of the Arts.

In 1934, then-Gov. Dave Sholtz assigned Julius Stone, then state administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, to come up with a plan. In no time, Stone, whose likeness can be see in the Key West Sculpture Garden near Mallory Square, realized that Key West needed to become a cultural tourist destination.

“They were turning the rest of Florida into a beach resort,” Frank said. “We don’t have beaches but we do have art.”

Relief officials brought in artists from all over the world to reinvent Key West by fashioning public art pieces, painting appealing postcards, setting up dramatic and choral groups and even teaching art classes to community members.

“Many of the artists went on to work all over the world,” said Karen Sadof, director of the Key West Heritage House museum. “These artists’ work extended beyond Key West, Florida.”

One of those artists was Townsend Morgan, world renowned for his etchings. Morgan headed up teaching art classes in Key West under WPA.

The Key West Heritage House displays a number of Morgan’s etchings and Frank sells reproductions and originals in her Gallery on Greene in Old Town.

Sadof, looking at a black and white Morgan etching of Key West from above, said, “If you go to the top of La Concha and look for the church, you can basically get the same view today.”

Sadof, through the Heritage House, offers walking tours of WPA sites and art projects in Key West for groups of four, made by prior arrangement for $25. The tour takes about two hours and includes a tour of the Heritage House and stops at the Key West Aquarium, the first WPA-built tourist attraction, Capt. Tony’s Saloon to view architecture, the Key West Art Center, which served as a WPA art gallery and classroom, and ends up at the Gallery on Greene.

“Part of the tour, just like the spirit of the WPA era, is to reinvent Key West as the tourist mecca it is today,” Sadof said. “Put people to work.”

“It’s the second most important industry in the Keys behind fishing,” Frank said. “Roosevelt was successful.”

But one local history buff doesn’t necessarily agree that Roosevelt was successful.

“Key West was chosen [for a WPA makeover] because it was one of the worst,” Monroe County Historian Tom Hambright told Keys Sunday. “Everything that had been of value here in the economics had disappeared. They were looking for some new industry, so that’s when they decided they’d try tourism.”

Prior to the economic collapse, Key West was a fabulously wealthy town with thriving wrecking, sponging, shipping and cigar making industries. “Industry disappeared,” Hambright said. “All of the factories were basically closed. Everything was just bad.”

He acknowledged that the WPA intervention in Key West did forge a new industry and provide some lasting cultural devices but argued that the economic policies that go with government aid don’t perpetuate wealth throughout a community.

“One of the big factors in good economic growth and bad economic growth is consumer confidence level. When that goes up, the economy booms; when that goes down, we have a recession. People with these temporary jobs, these government jobs…even though they were making some money, they weren’t spending it. That confidence level wasn’t there.”

Frank suggested that Key West as a cultural destination has fallen to the wayside in favor of Key West as a partying destination.

“We have enough visitors,” she said. “We want to bring in the ones that spend more money on culture, not bottles. We have to figure out a way for them to find the cultural destinations.”

One of many suggestions she gave was to reprint some of the original WPA-era postcards and place them on guests hotel room pillows with a list of suggestions for a day of touring.

“It’s so much easier to cut a budget than it is to spend money on something,” she said, criticizing the perceived unwillingness of government officials to focus resources on promoting cultural events. “Can you imagine how difficult it was to get the idea of Central Park across?”

But Frank is optimistic because “we live in a big, giant museum, which is placed in an aquarium.”

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