Works Progress Administration
by Shelly Couvrette

The economic boom in the United States in the 1920s had associated with it a marked growth in this country's art market. The American artist, however, was all but ignored. The attention of collectors was focused instead on Europe. It was not until later in the decade that this strengthening of the art market was felt by the American artist. The new interest shown by American collectors in the works of American artists was stimulated by a handful of critics, dealers, and museum directors. Their interest in "native" art pushed those more cautious dealers and collectors to consider the possible investment value of American art.(1)

This tentative acceptance of American art quickly turned to earnest consumption. Collectors seized whatever works they could get their hands on. The number of galleries and dealers swelled, making it necessary for the number of artists to grow in order to keep up with the new demand. There was a relative frenzy of activity in which art was, in essence, gambled upon. Works were bought cheaply and then resold at a much higher price. The art market of the mid- to late-1920s functioned in much the same manner as the stock market.(2)

In 1929 the crash of the stock market in the United States forced millions of laborers in all fields out of work. These newly unemployed had no real understanding of the forces that had placed them in this position. Many people felt that their financial problems were somehow their own fault; that if they had been more hard-working and deserving the economic problems facing the nation would not have touched them. The people at the time had no understanding of the larger elements that were controlling their lives.(3)

With the onset of the depression, interest in the arts in the United States was all but terminated. The effect on artists working in this country was sudden and catastrophic. Even those who were employed in industry found themselves without work. Collectors who had lost their money in either the crash of the stock market or in the subsequent bank failures could no longer afford to invest in art. This meant that patronage of American art dwindled. The number of private collectors and museums contributing money to the art market was insufficient to sustain even the few artists who had previously been able to support themselves through art. It was not merely the artists of questionable or mediocre merit that were effected; even artists who had attained high levels of success found they could not even afford to by groceries.(4)

The economic shambles the United States was in necessitated a radical solution. President Roosevelt's New Deal programs were seen as the best possible answer. It was the aim of administrators to institute not only a simple dole system. That had been tried on local levels and had not been sufficient for the vast number of unemployed persons who desperately needed help. The New Deal saw that it was absolutely imperative that the economic system be bolstered but that the skills and dignity of the workers be kept intact.(5)

There was a concern on the part of the government and private patrons for the cultural well-being of the United States. If artists were forced to pursue work outside the art field, their skills would deteriorate. If the talents of artists were not preserved, it was feared that the country faced a dreary future; American culture was collapsing into a black hole.(6)

Prior to 1929 there had been little done in relation to the development of a relief system in the United States capable of dealing with large quantities of unemployed persons. This was due primarily to the nature of our traditionally agricultural society. Our system of public assistance had failed to keep in step with the changes brought about by rapid industrialization. The minimal system in existence was derived from English poor laws of the Elizabethan era. These laws were designed with an eye toward deterring the destitute from taking advantage of them.(7)

What little aid the poor laws did provide was intended to help those who were not able to work (the needy aged, the insane, cripples and orphans). Primary responsibility for these people was considered to lie with their families. For this reason, it was felt that if the indigent were supplied with more than a subsistence level of upkeep their relatives would shirk their familial duties. Those persons who were considered able to work were generally not given any type of assistance. It was believed that if they received aid while they were able to work, they would become idle and shiftless.(8)

Before the New Deal, work relief of any sort was almost unheard of. Those who were both able to work and in need of employment were sometimes given "make-work" jobs. This type of labor was more a test of the person's willingness to work (and therefor his urgency) than a reflection of any use for the labor he was performing.(9)

With the masses of unemployed created in the 1930s, it was clear that the existing structure of the relief system would have to be reevaluated. The first step was to institute both public and private charities at the local level. It soon became evident that the sheer number of unemployed was too great for this approach to be effective. It was decided that programs should be established at the state level. Generally these programs were encouraged by the federal government but given no actual federal funding.(10)

By 1932 relief programs had been created in nearly one half of the states. It became apparent, however, that this would also prove insufficient. It was increasingly more obvious that federal financial intervention would be necessary. In the same year $300,000,000 was loaned to the states. This money was earmarked for deposit into both state and local relief funds. In order to be eligible for a loan the state had to prove that it could not raise the money itself.(11)

By the time Roosevelt took office in 1933 many of the state governments that had been forced to carry the burden of relief were nearly, if not completely, out of money. It became clear that they would not have the resources to repay the loans made to them by the federal government. On May 12, 1933 the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was created. With the institution of FERA $500,000,000 in grants from the federal government were set aside to fund emergency relief programs at the state level.(12)

In the autumn of 1933 another federal program was instituted. Placed under the administration of Harry L. Hopkins, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) was given a two month trial period. Within those first two months of its existence, the CWA put more than four million people to work. The demand for jobs was so great that its budget was overreached. In less than one year, in the spring of 1934, the CWA was dismantled. Some of its programs, however, were taken over by FERA and continued until that agency's liquidation in 1935.(13)

Possibly the greatest achievement of the CWA was that it allowed people who had lost their jobs to once again work for their livings. Until its inception, all the relief programs had been based on the dole system. Before the fall of 1933 relief took the form of, in essence, charity. The CWA proved, however, that people who were unemployed would much rather be given a chance to work in trade for the assistance they were given than receive a "hand-out." The work given those in the CWA was not the "make-work" sort of test that had existed under the poor laws. There was a genuine attempt made to match a worker's skills and experience to the jobs that needed to be done.(14)

Initially, support for artists who were unemployed took the form of either the dole or private charity. Public welfare was not taken advantage of by most artists because of the social stigma attached to it. In terms of private efforts on the behalf or artists, sales were sponsored by various art galleries while wealthy patrons donated monthly gifts to those of the worse off. These attempts to alleviate the problems were short term and had little effect.(15)

Many artists, especially those who were more conservative, resisted working for the federal relief programs. Possibly due to the emphasis on the financial need of the artist and perception that the projects were "make-work," they saw relief as being a form of dole.(16) This opposition of artists to accepting charity seems to almost equal that of the public's opposition to giving it to the artist. Possibly this stems from the United States' Protestant/Puritan roots. Americans are traditionally suspicious of "art" and "artists" as being frivolous and not entirely necessary.

Coupled with this seemingly inherent distrust of art is an underlying feeling that it can and will take care of itself. Art has (for better or for worse) always been and therefore always will be. The public seems to have felt that somehow it could survive without food and shelter.(17) This lack of concern on the part of the public for the support of the arts at the onset of the depression would inevitably have led to a veritable dark age for American culture.(18) If a great enough number of American artists left off the creation of art in order to pursue work that would make enough money to feed themselves and their families, a cultural void would be created.(19)

In terms of federal sponsorship of the arts, no real precedent existed. Although the United States government had always chosen artworks to decorate its buildings and create its monuments, no large-scale program had been developed for public art patronage had ever been instituted. Encouragement and sponsorship for the arts was left up to the private sector.(20)

The federally sponsored art projects of the New Deal era are frequently and easily confused. There is a tendency to lump all the separate programs together under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), when in fact the WPA was actually a distinct program itself. Each of the projects had a different goal, method, and accomplishments. These fundamental differences between the focuses of each of the programs gave the works produced by each of them their own flavor.(21)

Traditionally, the Treasury Department was responsible for the commissioning of artists to create works for the embellishment of federal buildings. This was carried over at the beginning of the New Deal into the creation of two projects under the control of the Treasury Department. The first was the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the second was the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (Section). Both of these programs were under the directorship of Edward Bruce.(22)

The roots of the first United States government work-relief programs designed specifically for artists can be traced to a similar program instituted by the Mexican government in 1926. Artists in that country were hired at workingmen's wages to paint murals for the decoration of public spaces. The idea of employing artists in this manner appealed to American painter george biddle. He wrote a letter to President Roosevelt appealing to him to organize a program of federal patronage like that established by the Mexican government. Roosevelt responded favorably, and by executive order created the PWAP as a division of the CWA.(23)

The PWAP was created in December 1933 with funding provided by the CWA. It was intended to function as an immediate relief program to help artists through the winter of 1933-1934. Although it was not the first federally-sponsored work relief program, it was the first designed specifically to meet the needs of out of work artists.(24)

The PWAP had both specific and broad goals. Primarily, it was to function as a work relief program for artists. The works created by these artists were to be used in the embellishment of both non-federal public buildings and parks. By placing these paintings and sculptures in a public venue, it was hoped that an interest in art among the general public would be fostered. This second goal was to be retained and later carried over into the Fine Arts Project.(25)

Artists working under the PWAP were expected to submit works that dealt almost exclusively with the "American Scene." These works were to be executed in a naturalistic, representational style. Those who were working in a more abstract vein were generally required to alter their mode of presentation or be excluded from employment by the PWAP. Artists like the abstract sculptor Isamu Noguchi and the semi-abstract painter Byron Browne were all but banned from the PWAP.(26)

The PWAP was interested not only in employing indigent artists but in receiving a high quality of work in return. Because of this dual focus, it developed a sort of split personality. The needs of the unemployed and the government's desire for a high level of "quality" became increasingly incompatible. In June 1934 the PWAP was dismantled.(27) Despite the fact that it was discontinued, the PWAP created a precedent for the federal art programs that were to follow.

Whereas the PWAP at least attempted to create work for those artists most in need of it, the Section was not fundamentally concerned with creating employment. The Section was established on December 1934 for the purpose of procuring works of art for the decoration of public buildings. Like the art produced by the PWAP, these works were meant to stimulate public interest in the arts.(28)

The Section was funded by the Treasury Department. One percent of the money appropriated for the erection of new public buildings was to be set aside for the allocation of the best art by the best artists.(29) Artists could be selected by either a National Advisory Committee or by the submission of designs for competitions.(30)

The works acquired by the Section were uniformly over-cautious. Its aim was to embellish public buildings with works of art (murals and sculptures) that the general public would not find in any way challenging or uncomfortable. Depictions of regional interest were favored; themes of historical events and local industries. No experimental works were permitted. Stifling supervision of both style and themes led to a inclination to "paint Section."(31) It is ironic that the Section, working with the best artists available, is not necessarily considered to have created works that had as great a lasting impact on American art as did the WPA/FAP.

Typical of the works created under the Section was the series of murals painted for the newly-completed Social Security Building in Washington, D.C. Created by painters Ben Shahn and Philip Guston, these works illustrate the need for, and benefits of, protecting the country's work-force.(32) Like other Section commissions, this one was not without its own array of administrative objections and subsequent re-workings by the artists.(33)

Operating under the supervision of the Section and receiving funding from the WPA, the Treasury Relief Art Program (TRAP) was instituted in July 1935. Olin Dows was appointed as its head. The creation of TRAP functioned to fill the gap between the Section and the WPA/FAP. Since the Section's funding came from the budget for the creation of new buildings, pre-existing structures were ineligible. TRAP was born in order to provide embellishment for the buildings whose budgets did not allow the usual one percent of funds for this purpose.(34)

TRAP functioned on a much smaller scale than did the WPA/FAP. Between July 1935 and June 1939 only 78 murals were painted in the United States, seventeen of which were located in New York.(35) Because only a small number of artists were employed by TRAP, those with the greatest experience and technical skill were given the commissions. The aim, much like that of the Section, was to create superior works of art.(36) The average pay under TRAP was $69-$103 per month for a total of 96 hours of work.(37)

The New York Customs House was one of the buildings targeted for embellishment by TRAP. Because it was a pre-existing structure, no funds existed in its budget that could be requisitioned for its decoration. It was decided that Reginald Marsh would be given the commission to paint its dome, an area covering some 2000 square feet. He was employed at the rate of thirty dollars per week, but because funds ran out he ended up finishing the project on donated time.(38)

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), under the direction of Harry L. Hopkins, was created in early 1935. The WPA's immediate goal was to return as many people across the board as possible to the work-force. Because of the broad sweep needed to realize this end most of the WPA's jobs were either in construction or road building. This allowed both skilled and unskilled workers to be employed without being required to under-go job rehabilitation. There were three basic criteria that were considered when creating jobs and filling them. The actual number of people needing work relief assistance were first calculated. Next, the skills that the community members shared were taken into account. Also considered was the sort of project the community would most need or benefit from.(39)

In August 1935 the Fine Arts Project (FAP) was instituted under the WPA. Because the FAP was a division of the WPA, in order to be eligible for employment an artist had to first be registered on the relief rolls or with the WPA.(40) This new division was headed by Holger Cahill, a dealer in American folk art.(41) With the creation of the FAP many of the smaller, state-sponsored relief programs were transferred to the new project. Of the 3500 artists originally working on the PWAP, almost 1000 of them were in turn employed by the FAP. The project was so successful, in fact, that by the fall of 1936 there were 5300 artists working under it. The United States government became the world's greatest art patron.(42)

Probably what is considered to be the greatest artistic accomplishment of the WPA/FAP is the murals it created. Mural production lent itself very well to the aims of the project. The large scale paintings executed directly onto walls of public buildings are in every essence social. The painting of these murals onto the actual wall (fresco painting) meant that the artist usually had to work in close contact with the public instead of in the relative isolation of his or her studio. This paralleled the oblique aim of the WPA/FAP of getting the artist out of the studio and putting him or her into a social context. Contact between artists and the community was important to project directors.(43)

Traditionally, mural painting reflected the experiences, concerns, history and convictions of a given community.(44) The administrators and artists of the WPA/FAP were looking toward the works of the Mexican muralists for inspiration (Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros).(45) Because the Mexican artists had been working in the United States, it was possible for American artist to view their works.

The fundamental difference between the WPA/FAP and the previous PWAP and Section was the insistence of the WPA/FAP on employing as many artists and craftsmen as possible, without regard to their level of skill (a great number were completely inexperienced).(46) In fact, of those employed under the WPA/FAP, fewer than one-half were fine artists. Many more were craftsmen, commercial and applied artists, or "journeymen" painters or sculptors.(47) This was made possible by the WPA/FAP's artistic goals. Unlike the PWAP and the Section, with their reliance upon the skills of proven artists to produce art of the highest quality, the WPA/FAP was interested not in creating individual masterpieces but in inspiring a broad cultural movement in the United States.(48)

The only stipulation placed on the art itself was that its subject matter must be American. The American theme could be (and often was) explored in any style, traditional or modern. In the mural division, the artist generally focused on either local industries or historical events.(49) The stylistic free-reign given artists working under the WPA/FAP was more fully explored under the easel and graphic arts divisions than under the mural division.(50)

Other factors contributed to the relative freedom enjoyed by the artists working under the WPA/FAP, including that many of the supervising personnel were themselves artists. This tended to alleviate some of the tensions between artists and supervisors that had been felt under the PWAP and the Section. Under these divisions artists were often stifled by the bureaucrats who felt compelled to retain ultimate control of their artworks' themes and styles.(51) Another contributing factor was that artists were given their set rate of pay whether or not their works were approved or installed.(52) In a survey conducted by Francis O'Connor, seventy-nine percent of the artists working under the WPA/FAP never had their works rejected; three-fourths of them were never asked to complete revisions.(53)

A principal concern of those involved with the various federal art projects was the perceived incompatibility between a large-scale government and the fostering of legitimate art.(54) The rigid supervision of artists working under the PWAP, Section, and TRAP illustrates this point. Throughout the lifetimes of these programs they had a history of both censoring and stifling the artists they employed.

It was not as if these concerns for "artistic freedom" were sacrificed for the greater quality of the works produced. Ironically, though they were supposedly working with the best artists in the nation, the technical merit of the works they produced was not necessarily superior to that of the WPA/FAP. At the same time these projects failed to reach the public they were created for.

The same accusations of mediocrity were levelled at the WPA/FAP as were at the PWAP, Section, and TRAP. The difference in the aims of the two groups of programs is what makes these charges, at least in part, invalid. It can be said that the goals of the Roosevelt administration of preserving the talents and ambitions of American artists were indeed the deciding factors in determining the worth of the WPA/FAP. Even those artists who, under the project, did not product art of world-class stature had the opportunity to grow into artists of merit. It is impossible to say whether or not, without this opportunity, they would have had the drive or the technical means to pursue the creation of art on a career level.(55)

Of all the federally sponsored art programs of the 1930s, the WPA/FAP is by far the most complex. Its continuing insistence on serving the general public was a major contributing factor in this. Its administrators were not concerned merely with bureaucratic issues. They were able to look forward to a more far- reaching goal. Although there are many components that contributed to a re-evaluation of the government's position in relation to art, the trend toward a democratization of art and culture is central.

One of the results was the general shift in focus during the depression from the individual to society. Traditionally, history has a tendency to look back on the outstanding figures. It fails to recognize the over-all culture that these persons were shaped by. A new concern for developing a broad vision of America permeated the WPA/FAP. There was no interest in developing a few major artists, but rather in initiating the development of a cross-country, pan-cultural art movement.(56)

Coupled with this concern for the establishment of a broad cultural Renaissance was the concept that art should belong to everyone. It was no longer felt that it was appropriate for art and culture to be the domain of a few elite members of society. Traditionally, working-class Americans had had little, if any, exposure to art. It was found that a majority of the persons who were responsible for teaching art appreciation in the country's schools had never seen an actual, original work of art.(57)

The interest of the federal government in raising the cultural standards of the general public led to the establishment of a series of community art centers and experimental galleries across the United States. It was found that there was almost no public venue for the exhibition and teaching of art at the neighborhood level. The problem was of the greatest proportions in the south, west, and mid-west.(58) These new centers and galleries were to provide a sort of "cultural welfare" meant to balance the economic welfare supplied by other New Deal programs.(59)

The programs of the centers and the exhibitions sponsored by the galleries were free to the public. They were both also open and available during evening hours when working persons could most easily take advantage of them. Because these programs were free they were among the few diversions that the depression era poor could enjoy. Even those who would not necessarily have attended a drawing workshop or a contemporary art exhibit turned out by the millions.(60) In all, more than 107 community centers and galleries were established throughout the United States.(61)

In the first six weeks of 1936 the WPA/FAP set up in the south nineteen experimental galleries, in which time they received over one-half million visitors.(62) These galleries often hosted local and travelling exhibitions of works created under the WPA/FAP, giving the public what may have been its first opportunity to explore contemporary art. It was important for organizers to take into consideration the interests of the community when planning exhibitions. Generally favored were issues dealing with local industries, crafts, and concerns of the geographic and social area(63) While those attending may or may not have appreciated the experience, it cannot be argued that it must have had some effect on their lives.

The purpose of the community art centers was to allow both children and adults the chance to learn about, and participate in, the creation of art. It was hoped that even if the older persons did not take advantage of the classes offered by the centers, that maybe they would encourage their children to attend some of the workshops. Holger Cahill, director of the FAP, felt that the greatest possible accomplishment of the program was reaching children with art. This was to be realized through classes offered by the community art centers. Through their exposure to art it was hoped that these children would develop a life-long love and appreciation of it.(64)

Another concern of the WPA/FAP was the search for an American identity. In the United States, there are a vast number of widely-differing cultures. The popular belief has been that with the mingling of these cultures a "melting pot" would be formed. During the depression, however, the distinctness of each culture was--ideally--recognized, legitimized, and shared by all. With this approach there would continue to be a preservation of cultural differences, but at the same time a sharing of those differences. The diversity of the nation would be harnessed to bring about unity.(65)

There has long been a trend toward condemning the art created by the WPA/FAP as being uninspiring in its form and commonplace and even pedestrian in its content. These charges are levelled at the inclination of the project to depict in its artworks the concerns of both the artists and general public. The issues that were important to the public and artists during the depression were not the same issues important to critics of that time, much less today. Art cannot be created in a vacuum. It must reflect the concerns, environment, even genetic make-up of the artist creating it. Art is uniquely human. It is created by humans who are the distinctive products of culture. This does not necessarily lend itself to realism in art. All aspects of physical and mental existence are a part of one's existence. There is not one reality for either the artist or the viewer.

The validity of New Deal art lies in the fact of its very existence. It does not have to prove itself to us, today, to earn confirmation of its credibility. The very forces that brought it into being have given it purpose. The people who fought fore its right to live and thrive during the potentially barren years of the depression have shown us, today, that the nurturing of art is of vital importance.

E-mail: shelly@cat-sidh.net
Copyright 2007 Shelly Couvrette


1. Holger Cahill, New Horizons in American Art (New York: published for MoMA by Arno Press, 1969), 15.

2. Forbes Watson, "The Artist Becomes a Citizen," The Forum (May 1934), 277.

3. Francis O'Connor, introduction to, New Deal Art: California (Santa Clara: DeSaisset Art Gallery and Museum, 1976), 11.

4. Sidney Geist, "Prelude: the 1930s," Arts (September 1956), 49.

5. O'Connor, DeSaisset catalogue, 11.

6. Phantom Gallery, WPA Art: New York City 1935-1943 (Los Angeles: Phantom Gallery, 1986), 1.

7. U.S. Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-1943 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947), 1.

8. Final Report, 1.

9. Final Report, 1-2.

10. Final Report, 2.

11. Final Report, 2.

12. Final Report, 2.

13. Louis Untermeyer, "Unemployed Arts," Fortune (May 1937), 110.

14. Untermeyer, 110.

15. Francis O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts: the New Deal and Now (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1969), 30.

16. Charles Sawyer, introduction to By the People, for the People: New England (Lincoln, Massachusetts: DeCordova catalogue), 17.

17. Mary Fuller, "Emblems of Sorrow: the WPA Art Projects in San Francisco," ArtForum (November 1963), 37.

18. Cahill, 15.

19. Phantom, 1.

20. O'Connor, Federal Support for Visual the Arts, 17.

21. Erica Beckh, "Government Art in the Roosevelt Era," Art Journal (fall 1960), 3.

22. Francis O'Connor, "New Deal Murals in New York," ArtForum (November 1968), 42.

23. O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts, 17-18.

24. O'Connor, New Deal Murals, 42.

25. O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts, 19.

26. O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts, 33.

27. Beckh, 3.

28. Beckh, 4.

29. O'Connor, New Deal Murals, 42.

30. Sawyer, DeCordova catalogue, introduction.

31. Beckh, 7-8

32. Michele Vishny, "On the Walls: murals by Ben Shahn, Philip Guston, and Seymour Fogel for the Social Security Building, Washington, D.C.," Fortune (May 1937), 40.

33. Vishny, 43-44.

34. O'Connor, New Deal Murals, 42.

35. O'Connor, New Deal Murals, 42.

36. Sawyer, DeCordova catalogue, 13.

37. Elisabeth Stevens, "The Thirties Revived" federal art patronage, 1933-1943," ArtForum (June 1966), 44.

38. O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts, 25-26.

39. Untermeyer, 110.

40. Beckh, 8.

41. Sawyer, DeCordova catalogue, 18.

42. Geist, 50.

43. Cahill, 32-33.

44. Cahill, 32.

45. Greg Masters, "From the 1930s-40s," Arts Magazine (February 1987), 106.

46. O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts, 110.

47. Cahill, 17.

48. Cahill, DeCordova catalogue, 23.

49. Final Report, 64.

50. Beckh, 8.

51. O'Connor, New Deal Murals, 44.

52. Beckh, 8.

53. O'Connor, Federal Support for the Visual Arts, 102.

54. O'Connor, Federal Support of the Visual Arts, 110.

55. Beckh, 7.

56. Cahill, 8.

57. "Federal Art on Parade in San Francisco," Art Digest (May 15, 1939), 5.

58. Cahill, 21.

59. Jonathan Harris, "Nationalizing Art: the Community ARt Centre Programme of the Federal Art Project 1935-1943," Art History (June 1991), 256.

60. Cahill, 24.

61. Beckh, 5-6.

62. Geist, 50.

63. Cahill, 21-22.

64. Cahill, 23-24.

65. Harris, 264, 257.