An acronym for Works Progress Administration, the WPA was a federal program established with a budget of thirty-five million dollars by the U.S. government to provide economic relief to citizens suffering during the Great Depression. Its director was Harry L. Hopkins, an ex social worker who had come from modest means. He argued that writers, artists, musicians, and theater people were out of work as well as laborers and farmers. An additional catalyst for financial support for art was a letter to the President written by artist George Biddle (1885-1973), a friend and former classmate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, calling for relief for artists. Biddle’s lobbying is considered the seed for all the New Deal art projects. Congress agreed to allocate seven percent of WPA funding to employ those groups.
The Federal Art Project (FAP), which opened in August 1935, was the visual arts division of the New Deal WPA. The basic premise behind the FAP was that there should be ‘art for every man’; since the New Dealers believed that art should be accessible to everyone. Holger Cahill, director of exhibitions at the American Museum of Modern Art (New York City), was selected to be its director. The FAP is one of the numerous ‘alphabet soup’ labels often bundled together and referred to under the general umbrella term of ‘WPA’. Prior to the FAP, Roosevelt had made previous attempts to provide employment for artists on relief, in particular the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP.), which operated from 1933 to 1934, as well as the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture created in 1934. The Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) ran concurrently with the FAP for several years, supporting artists from July 1935 until June 1938. TRAP artists were not on relief or necessarily in financial need. They were awarded commissions based on the results of a competition. The FAP, however, became the most far-reaching program.
The Federal Art Project, which lasted until April 1943, provided employment for approximately five-thousand artists, who created posters, murals, and paintings, and other artworks, some of which are among the most significant works of public art in the country. The goals of the FAP were to employ out of work artists and provide art for tax-supported buildings such as courthouses, post offices, and libraries. Often realistic, historical, and sentimental, these works produced during the Depression era have been called American Renaissance expressions by some, and dismissed as propagandist by others. One notable inspiration for many of these artists was Mexican painter and muralist, Diego Rivera (1886-1957) who spent time in this country and is known for scenes he created on public buildings, depicting American life. Although he was not a WPA artist, the political concerns he addressed in his work, served as inspiration to later WPA artists.
The Federal Art Project existed in the forty-eight states, and its strongest outreach program was in art education for children. FAP maintained more than 100 community art centers across the nation, managed art programs, and held art exhibitions of works produced by children and adults. By 1940 there were over one-hundred federal art centers and federal art galleries throughout the United States. Art classes, exhibits, and lectures provided opportunities for making art more accessible to average Americans. These programs spawned a new awareness of and appreciation for American art, along with providing jobs for needy artists.
To qualify for work in the FAP, artists had to meet certain professional standards, and also the relief requirements of their home state. They were reviewed periodically, and could be removed from a project if their work was unsatisfactory or their financial status changed. Nearly every known artist of the period, except those who had regular teaching jobs, became involved, and well-respected artists headed divisions reflecting their special skills: Burgoyne Diller (1906-1965) for Muralists, Girolamo Piccoli (1902- ) for Sculptors, Ernest Limbach (early 20th c.), and Gustave Von Groschwitz (1906- ) for Graphic Artists and Alexander Stavenitz (1901-1960) for Teachers.
These section heads determined artists’ eligibility from resumes and data showing financial need. Once accepted, artists were allowed to transfer among various divisions, and the most popular areas were easel and mural painting, teaching, and printmaking. They produced over 200,000 works of art including oil paintings, murals, sculptures, watercolors, etchings and drawings. Among the notable artists supported by the project were Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), William Gropper (1897-1977), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), Leon Bibel (1912-1995) and Ben Shahn (1898-1969) whose work, The Riveter is in the Bronx New York central postal station. About 75% of the FAP artists were concentrated in urban areas, and Roosevelt indicated some disappointment to the project director Cahill for not better reaching rural areas.
The works of the Easel Division emphasized nationalism and the rediscovery of America via art subjects. In the Mural Division, the focus was on artwork for public places, and varying themes resulted from artists working in regions throughout the country, such as social-realist scenes in Chicago, abstract murals in New York, and Oriental themes in California. For the Sculpture Division, artists were encouraged to experiment with less expensive, non-traditional materials such as wood in sculpture as opposed to bronze. Graphic artists were also encouraged to be economical and practical. Many produced ‘promotional’ posters for the government. Prints of the two-dimensional works remain in circulation, and many are highly collectible as are works with the initials ‘WPA’ after the artist’s signature.
When accepted to the project, artists were classified according to skill level, and the amount they received, between $25.00 and $35.00 a week, depended on their assigned skill level. Easel artist participants worked from their own studios and turned in their artwork on a weekly basis. Waiting in line for their paychecks gave many of them a chance to socialize and exchange ideas with each other. The majority of the paintings were oil on canvas or board, and only a few worked with water-based paints. Participants were given freedom of expression, and styles ranged from Social Realism to Surrealism to total Abstraction.
In 1942, most of the activities of the art projects were being directed towards World War II subjects. At this time Cahill set up a Central Allocations unit in Chicago to which all states could send their undistributed creative art. When word came that it was likely the projects were ending, the distribution of artwork became more intense. Museums were invited to apply for art, a privilege they did not have before, and were perceived as an additional source of patronage for the artists.
Problems occurred with the program, including fluctuating funds, bureaucratic complications, and varied reaction to the art that was produced. Disagreements were many. For example, when the WPA enforced its requirement to draw 90% of artists from the relief rolls, TRAP hiring was slowed. Debates ensued regarding ‘quality’. Some argued that there were not enough artists on relief to do the job and still maintain the quality for which TRAP wished to stand.
This topic of ‘quality’ opened the Treasury Section to the heaviest criticism of all New Deal programs from what was then a highly organized and politically conscious community of artists. Protests by artists' unions succeeded in forcing TRAP's payroll up to its highest level of 356; but never did TRAP attain its authorized level of 450 artists. ‘Formula approaches’ were another problematic topic. Perhaps best-known of all the TRAP projects was the placement of murals in at least one post office in each state, with the requirement that these murals reflect the unique regional attributes of each selected site. In practice this method, in many cases, boiled down to oversimplified formula: some artists were selected for a mural in one region on the basis of designs submitted with another region in mind. They were then required to change, say, a cactus into a sycamore, or lumberjacks into cowboys to adapt to ‘local culture’. With a rather turbulent history, the Federal Art Project was closed in 1943.
However, the overall result of the FPA was positive in that many murals remain in public buildings, especially post offices; artists were generally able to subsist during the Depression; the program was a valuable learning experience for the participants; it aroused a much greater public interest and appreciation in American art, which led to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts twenty-five years after the WPA ended. After World War II, some of the participating artists, realizing the need for general education, started their own art schools. According to New York dealer and art-writer Jeanette Hendler, “A lot is learned about the 1930s and 1940s when we study the art produced at the time of the WPA. We learn from and see where all of the future art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism and Graffiti Art emerged.”
The Smithsonian Archives of American Art has a comprehensive but incomplete inventory of WPA artists across the country. Among the numerous names are Raphael Soyer (1899-1987) who painted Working Girls Going Home for New York City FAP in 1937; Montana artist Jessie Wilber (1912-1908) won a commission to create a mural for the Kingman, Kansas post office; Grant Wright Christian (1911-1989) created Waiting for the Mail for the Nappanee, Indiana post office for the TRAP. Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) painted The American Historical Epic for the New School of Social Research in New York City, a work that earned much respect for mural painting and was key to the support of artists in the Federal Art Projects. Wisconsin artist Armin O. Hansen (1893-1976) painted many murals around that state, including one for the Milwaukee Trade and Tech high school; Nebraska artist Augustus Dunbier (1888-1977) became a WPA artist in 1934, teaching in the federal government program. In San Francisco, California, Art Deco-style landmark Coit Tower has an interior adorned with murals done by WPA artists including project director Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979), and Ralph Stackpole (1885-1973), Maxine Albro (1903-1966), Rinaldo Cuneo (1877-1939), Jane Berlandina (1898-1970), and Ray Boynton (1883-1951). Other WPA artists are Grant Wood (1892-1942), Guy Pene du Bois (1884-1958), William Zorach (1887-1966), Aaron Berkman (1900-1991), Norman Barr (1908-1994), John Sloan (1871-1951), Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Albert Pels (1910-1998), Jules Halfant (1909-2001), and FDR’s above-mentioned classmate George Biddle.
(Written by Teta Collins and Lonnie Dunbier). Sources: Jeanette Hendler, “WPA/NYC Artists”, Essay for AskART, 2004; Roberta Maneker, 'Sleeping Giants', "Art & Antiques", June 2005; “Phaidon Dictionary of Twentieth Century Art”; AskART database; livinghistoryfarm.org; wikipedia.org; the Connecticut Historic Commission; Jerry Wilkinson ‘The WPA federal Art Project’ for the Cultural Museum of Florida Keys; the website of the New Deal Preservation Association; Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard, authors of New Deal Cultural Programs, Experiments in Cultural Democracy; website of PBS.org: ‘American Masters’.