Remembering CETA artists in NYC

Anna Schwartz

Walking through the Clark Street subway station in Brooklyn Heights, one can easily miss the two colorful tile murals installed near the entrances. Completed in 1981 by artists Jonah Sellenraad, Alan Samalin, and ceramicist Joe Stallone, the murals depict several nearby attractions, including Plymouth Church and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Johan Sellenraad's mural of Plymouth Church in the Clark Street subway station.
Plymouth Church House, 1941, CHUR_0109. Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

The artworks were created as part of a federal jobs program called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). While most people have heard of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an employment and infrastructure project designed to provide jobs to millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression, less are familiar with this similar, but later jobs program. Both projects employed thousands of artists in cities across the United States; however, the legacy of CETA artists and their work has been largely forgotten compared to WPA-sponsored projects.

The CETA program operated from 1974-1981 and provided full-time employment to nearly 10,000 artists nationwide.  Artist applied for open positions and were assigned to participating organizations based on their artistic background. Unlike its predecessor the WPA, CETA-funded projects were administered at a local rather than federal level. In New York City, the Cultural Council Foundation (CCF), its seven subcontractors, and four additional nonprofits directly managed the artists. Less than two years into the program, CETA/CCF artists had completed over a hundred public art projects. Artists also worked closely with local communities teaching workshops, offering free public performances, hosting poetry readings, and even providing art therapy. 

Considering these valuable contributions, why have so few people heard of CETA? CETA alumni Virginia Maksymowicz and Blaise Tobia argue one reason may be the absence of a central repository for the program’s records. In NYC, records exist in multiple archives and museums, including the Center for Brooklyn History (CBH), Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, Municipal Archives, NYPL, as well as legacy organizations like the CETA Arts Legacy Project. Maksymowicz and Tobia also point out that often catalog records for CETA funded artwork that ended up in museums fail to capture the relationship with the program.

CETA collections at CBH

The Center for Brooklyn History holds a small, but unique assortment of CETA related materials, from applications to project artwork. Additionally, CBH has several photography collections and oral histories by CETA alumni. These collections shed light on the significant legacy of the program in New York City.

CBH has two collections of art works created under the CETA program. The first is a set of seventeen watercolors by Jonah Sellenraad—one of the artists of the Clark Street subway station murals—made for CCF in 1978-79. The drawings depict various commercial, government, and residential buildings in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of DUMBO, Gowanus, Cobble Hill, and the Navy Yard, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle warehouse and Empire Stores pictured below. Sellenraad’s delightful watercolors serve as both important historic documents and beautiful works of art.

Johan Sellenraad, "Empire Stores," 1979, watercolor on paper, m1985.353.17. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.
Johan Sellenraad, "The Eagle Warehouse & Storage Co.," 1978, watercolor on paper, m1985.353.15. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

The second collection is a group of black and white photographs by photographer Larry Racioppo depicting the Brooklyn neighborhood of Clinton Hill. Racioppo’s CETA assignment was to “document existing architectural, cultural, educational, civic, social, recreational and human resources of the Clinton Hill neighborhood for exhibition, lecture-demonstration, historical archives.” His striking images capture the diversity and vibrancy of the neighborhood.

Larry Racioppo, "Kids with the peace sign," 1979. Larry Racioppo photograph collection. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.
Larry Racioppo, "Young girl, Queen of All Saints," 1979. Larry Racioppo photograph collection. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.
Larry Racioppo, "Waitress, Italian restaurant," 1979. Larry Racioppo photograph collection. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.

The Eastern Parkway Coalition records explore CETA from the perspective of a participating nonprofit. The collection contains materials associated with the Brooklyn Renaissance Coalition for Jobs extensive efforts to secure CETA funding, including applications, reports, and meeting minutes.

We Want To Work flyer, Eastern Parkway Coalition records, 2007.016. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brookyn History.

The Coalition, a group of over two dozen nonprofits based in and serving Black and Puerto Rican communities, petitioned both the Brooklyn Borough President and the Department of Cultural Affairs for funding in 1977 and again in 1978. A letter from the Coalition’s director to the Commissioner states: “As you know, too often the aspiration of New York’s Black cultural community are dashed because the City’s supportive resources have been previously committed to older, more established institutions.” The Coalition eventually recieved CETA funding after members protested on the steps of City Hall.

Brooklyn Tenants Union CETA application, Eastern Parkway Coalition records, 2007.016. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brookyn History.

Lastly, CBH has a collection of photographs by CETA alumni and documentary photographer Marcia Bricker. Her work for CETA/CCF included photographing the Soviet refugees and their introduction to American culture in Brighton Beach, photographing housing issues in Hell's Kitchen, and taking many of the photographs of Mierle Laderman Ukeles' iconic conceptual project, Touch Sanitation. In 1992, Bricker donated 47 photographs to CBH (unrelated to her work with CCF), several of which include her notable work on Dubrow’s, a family-owned chain of cafeteria-style, self-service restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn. 

Marcia Bricker, "Over 80 Club," circa 1975, gelatin silver prints, V1992.43.2. Marcia Bricker photograph collection. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.       
Marcia Bricker, [Dubrow's] circa 1975, gelatin silver prints, V1992.43.4. Marcia Bricker photograph collection. Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History.


Lisa Napoli

Reading this wonderful post makes me curious if CBH holds the records for BACA, the Brooklyn Arts and Cultural Association. If you haven't interviewed its long-standing staff member, Chuck Reichenthal, I wish you would! My best, Lisa
Fri, Aug 12 2022 2:16 pm Permalink
Jeanette Vuocolo

You may want to consider contacting Mary MacArthur Griffin who helped administer the CETA Program. I worked for her when she directed The Kitchen in Soho, probably directly after her CETA post. She lives in Brooklyn Heights.
Fri, Aug 12 2022 3:08 pm Permalink
Virginia Maksymowicz

Fabulous article! I was a CETA artist on the same project with Larry, Marcia, Joe, Alan, Johan and Blaise. Another piece of Brooklyn CETA history is the creation of BACA Downtown. A bunch of us CETA artists under the Cultural Council Foundation were assigned to the Brooklyn Arts and Culture Association to turn the old St. Boniface School on Willoughby Street into a gallery and performance space. Charlene Victor was the force behind it. We cleaned out the school, patched and painted walls, designed and painted murals, and built a stage. After our group finished our assignment, Charlene was able to get another crew of CETA artists through the Department of Cultural Affairs.
Fri, Aug 12 2022 6:16 pm Permalink
George C Koch

Outstanding collection, those of us who have a connection to CETA and the ARTS are so grateful that you have assembled this collection.
Mon, Aug 15 2022 4:16 pm Permalink
Virginia Maksymowicz

Dear Lisa and Jeanette: In terms of BACA documentation, the NYC Municipal Archives branch at Industry City has a box of photos by Terise Slotkin:: #7105. -- Virginia
Tue, Oct 18 2022 9:36 pm Permalink

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