A New Deal: Artists of the WPA from the CMA Collection highlights the artists who were employed by the Works Progress Administration during one of the most challenging periods in American history.
In early 1934 the Great Depression was looming, and unemployment was close to 25 percent. In response, the United States government, under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, established The Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 to provide employment to the unemployed and to stimulate economic growth.
As part of the WPA, the Federal Art Project (FAP) was launched to fund the creation of art and support artists, though there was pushback since artists were perceived as not having “jobs” to lose. Ironically, it was an artist, George Biddle, who proposed that the government set up a program to support mural painting, leading to the creation of the FAP.
To recruit artists for the FAP, advertisements were placed in newspapers around the country. People lined up in the cold outside of government offices to apply, a process that involved proving they were professional artists and passing a needs test. If they passed, they were placed into categories that determined their salaries; a small wage for their work which allowed them to support themselves and their families during a time of economic hardship.
The FAP employed thousands of artists in a variety of fields, including painting, sculpture, graphic design, and theater, and research and documentation of artwork. The FAP also supported art education and outreach, including traveling exhibitions and art programs for children. There were no government-mandated requirements about the subject of the art or its style; the expectation was that the art would relate to the times and reflect the place in which it was created. Many works during this time featured social commentary on the hardships of the Great Depression, although many were more focused on portraying patriotism and nostalgia for a simpler, happier time. Throughout hundreds of public buildings, artists depicted Regionalism, or idealistic images of rural America, memorializing routine activities for the average American citizen. Some of the successes of WPA programs were also depicted, including industrial triumphs such as the construction of dams, the expansion of the electrical power grid across the country, and advances in agriculture.
In total, the WPA produced 2,566 murals, more than 100,000 paintings, about 17,700 sculptures, nearly 300,000 fine prints, with a total federal investment of about $35,000,000. It was the WPA that supported artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock before their careers took off. The WPA and FAP were terminated in 1943 due to the cost of the program amidst the improving economy. This exhibit focuses on artists from CMA’s collection who worked for the WPA — the projects they worked on, the subjects they were interested in, and how their own lives were affected by the Depression.