“Art for the Millions”: The WPA Federal Art Project 1935-1943

Understanding the Arts poster
“Understanding the Arts”. Artist: Shari Weisberg. Federal Art Project, WPA.

The WPA Federal Art Project was a Depression-era New Deal program set up to fund the visual arts in the U.S.  It was not created as a cultural activity. It was a relief measure to provide employment for artists and artisans to create murals, paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theater scenic design and arts & crafts. (wikipedia.org).

The philosophy of the New Deal arts projects was unique. Artists were workers, and art was cultural labor worthy of support from the government.  The project’s non-discrimination clause attracted and employed not only white males, but artists of color and women, two groups whose talents were often ignored in the mainstream art community of the era.

The Roosevelt administration commissioned a large body of public art without any restrictions on content or subject matter. 10,000 artists and craft workers were employed throughout the Depression and more than 200,000 separate works were created.

Murals and sculptures were designed and installed in municipal buildings, schools, libraries, post offices and public spaces. When the program was halted in 1943, many of these works were allowed to deteriorate or were destroyed when the buildings were renovated or torn down. Those that remain are among the most notable pieces of public art in the country.

The Coit Tower murals in San Francisco and the 1934 Astronomers Monument at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles are but two examples in California of WPA projects still in existence. Others can still be found in public buildings and spaces in many U.S. cities.

Tess Thackara, Writer-at-Large for artsy.com, states in her article: “WPA art favored Social Realism, in the form of public artworks and murals that celebrated industry and labor. These works put art within eyesight of ordinary people going about their daily lives and are consequentially also among the most famous created through the WPA initiative.”

The WPA Federal Arts Project established over 100 Community Art Centers throughout the country. It was a novel approach that brought “art within reach” and created new audiences by bringing art education and exhibitions to neighborhoods and communities with little or no access to museums or galleries. Artists contributed their talents to these centers and made art training and appreciation accessible to a wide and culturally diverse audience. Its intention was to affirm the democratic possibilities of a project that extended across class, ethnic and racial boundaries.

Photography Exhibition
“Photography Exhibition”. Artist: Anthony Velonis. Federal Art Project, WPA

The creation of the poster as an art form was one element of the project that truly engendered the democratic principles the government was attempting to encourage during the darkest days of the Depression. Posters promoted health and safety, travel, sports and recreation, theater, dance and music, community events, defense and the war effort.

Ennis Carter states in her book Posters for the People: “As artifacts, posters serve as an important snapshot of a moment in our nation’s social, cultural and art history. Their creation played a key role, not only in promoting the hopes and aspirations of a government, but also in advancing American poster design and printing techniques.”

Posters are a powerful and influential public art form. They attract attention and send strong messages, able to reach a wide and varied audience. WPA posters appeared everywhere. Not only were they intended to promote social programming, but also were designed to encourage positive values and behaviors. Surprisingly, given the era of the 1930’s, diverse cultures and ethnicities were represented and depicted with respect.

The messages these posters conveyed are as relevant now as they were then. We continue to confront the issues highlighted in these works today.

WPA posters demonstrated ground-breaking technical developments in American graphic design and printmaking. Hand-painted images on easels shifted to woodblock and lithography. In 1936, silk-screening came into wide use. Poster artists influenced a new generation of fine art printmaking and opened the way for the avant-garde, and the innovative works of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol among many others.

Mark Rothko, Willem deKooning, and Jackson Pollock, trailblazers of the abstract expressionist movement, Lee Krasner, and Wanda Gag, are a few of the artists who began working for the WPA arts projects and went on to garner acclaim after the project ended.

Partisan political opposition and the war brought a rather abrupt end to the WPA art projects in 1943. Much of the poster art was discarded or buried in boxes hidden away in obscure storage areas. Interest in this art form was rekindled with the discovery of a cache of posters in a Library of Congress attic tower in the late 1960’s. WPA poster artists are now widely recognized for their contributions to the history of graphic arts. The posters have become a valued and well-regarded body of work.

See America poster
“See America / United States Travel Bureau”. Artist: Alexander Dux. Federal Art Project, WPA.

Whether you are fortunate enough to find original posters of the period or the reproductions that are available, the bright colors and unique shapes make them eminently collectible. The travel and National Parks posters are especially remarkable.

As appraisers in the field, we must be aware of the existence of New Deal and WPA art when performing valuations. Pieces owned by the government have been lost and could turn up anywhere, including private collections. Many have marks or stickers stating that they are owned by the U.S. Government.  In these cases, they should be returned to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) so they can be preserved for future generations.  For more information see “Legal Title to Art Work Produced Under the 1930s and 1940s New Deal Administration”.

SOURCES:

 Posters for the People, Art of the WPA, Ennis Carter, Quirk Books. Philadelphia, 2008

Posters of the WPA, Christopher deNoon, University of Washington Press. 1987

What We Can Learn from the Brief Period When the Government Employed Artists, Tess Thackara, Writer-At-Large, January 31, 2017, artsy.net

Looking for America: The Index of American Design, Series of Essays by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, historymatters.gmu.edu

WPA Projects, Public Art Throughout the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles Times. November 13, 1994

WPA Posters, Library of Congress, Collection of 900 Posters 1936-1943 Images, loc.gov

What Was the WPA Art Project (1935-1943), List of Federal Art Project Artists, en.wikipedia.org

wpamurals.com

WPA mural, Los Angeles, CA
WPA mural, Terminal Annex building, Los Angeles, CA. Artist: Boris Deutch. 1941

 

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Kathi

Kathi Jablonsky, ISA CAPP is a full time appraiser of antiques, furnishings and decorative art. Locations in Palm Desert and San Diego, California.