A Helping Hand: Artists and the WPA
“Hell, they’ve got to eat, too.”
-Harry Hopkins, US Secretary of Commerce 1938-1940
With the passage of time it is easy to forget just how dramatically the Great Depression shifted the dynamics of American society. With millions suddenly finding themselves unemployed, with the country devastated by the Dust Bowl famines of the mid-to-late 1930s, the United States found itself at a great moral and social crossroads. Does the government fight an ever-losing battle to uphold the old social orders which had led to the Great Depression in the first place, or do they blaze new social and governmental trails which would give relief to millions of suffering men, women and children?
It was under this cloud of economic and social upheaval that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7034 on May 6, 1935. This order created the Works Progress Administration. The WPA, as it came to be known, was largely shaped by Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins, who believed that the only way to get the country back on track was through federal works projects.
A key component of the WPA was Federal Project Number One, which was tasked with putting unemployed artists back to work. This project included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers Project and the Historical Records Survey.
The contributions to American cultural history which came from Federal Project Number One are inestimable; the Federal Music Project created music programs for youth across the country and recorded traditional music and folk dances from various cultures throughout the United States. The Federal Writers Project recorded oral histories from former slaves and their descendants, resulting in the creation of the Slave Narrative Collection. And out of the Federal Theatre Project came such talents as Orson Welles and Burt Lancaster, as well as providing funds and venues to African-American playwrights and actors such as Frank H. Wilson and Countee Cullen. In fact, Orson Welles directed the first adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to feature an entirely African-American cast, moving the play’s setting from Scotland to a fictional Caribbean island.
The arm of Federal Project Number One with arguably the most enduring legacy was the Federal Art Project, which was headed up by Holger Cahill and throughout its eight years of existence employed thousands of artists, among them Jackson Pollock, Gertrude Abercrombie, Willem de Kooning and Diego Rivera. One of the main aims of the Federal Art Project was to create works which spoke of shared values that crossed racial and class lines. Technological wonders, farmlands, family meals and small-town life were all popular themes. Above all else the government wanted to reinforce in its people a sense of national purpose and unity, to offer them a reminder of all that was good about America and thus worth fighting for.
This sense of unity extended to the artists themselves, who had spent the years before the Depression mostly working alone. The experience of picking up their paychecks at the FAP offices, of working together on large-scale murals, fostered a camaraderie among American artists that had never existed before. Many of them continued to work together even after the Second World War ended. These partnerships contributed greatly to the development of Abstract Expressionism, a quintessentially American artistic movement which helped to define postwar American culture to the rest of the world.
The works produced by the Federal Art Project numbered nearly 200,000 and include public works which can still be seen today in post offices, apartment buildings, community centers and schools, including Chicago’s own Lane Tech High School, which houses one of the largest collections of WPA murals in the country. By exposing average citizens to fine, colorful art outside of the traditional venues of museums and art galleries, the federal government gifted the people with a lasting relationship to fine art, and provided to Americans enduring the worst crisis in recent memory with cause to hope for a better future. The case can be made that in enriching the lives of average Americans in this way, the government also braced them for the long, dark struggle against the forces of fascism which would dominate the next few years, and provided them with the sense of purpose and shared destiny required to stamp it out. In this sense the legacy of the Federal Art Project endures to this day.
Image 1: John Buczak, Buckingham Fountain 1939
Image 2: Selma Burke with portrait bust of Booker T. Washington, 1935
Image 3: Nat Karson working on sets and costumes for Orson Welles's Macbeth, 1936
Image 4: Eric Morse and colleague working on his fresco Power in the library of the Samuel Gompers Industrial High School For Boys
All images courtesy of the Library of Congress.