“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

 

FBI Warns Dealers, Collectors About Terrorist Loot

On Aug. 26th the following announcement was made:

The FBI is alerting art collectors and dealers to be particularly careful trading Near Eastern antiquities, warning that artifacts plundered by terrorist organizations such as ISIL are entering the marketplace.

“We now have credible reports that U.S. persons have been offered cultural property that appears to have been removed from Syria and Iraq recently,” said Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program.

The Bureau is asking U.S. art and antiquities market leaders to spread the word that preventing illegally obtained artifacts from reaching the market helps stem the transfer of funds to terrorists.

In a single-page document titled ISIL Antiquities Trafficking, the FBI asks leaders in the field to disseminate the following message:

  • Please be cautious when purchasing items from this region. Keep in mind that antiquities from Iraq remain subject to Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions under the Iraq Stabilization and Insurgency Sanctions Regulations (31 CFR part 576).
  • Purchasing an object looted and/or sold by the Islamic State may provide financial support to a terrorist organization and could be prosecuted under 18 USC 233A.
  • Robust due diligence is necessary when purchasing any Syrian or Iraqi antiquities or other cultural property in the U.S. or when purchasing elsewhere using U.S. funds.

In February, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2199, which obligates member states to take steps to prevent terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria from receiving donations and from benefiting from trade in oil, antiquities, and hostages.

Before purchasing an item from suspected areas, ask questions and verify:

  • Which country did this come from?
  • Do you have the proper paperwork?
  • What is the provenance or history of the object’s ownership?

Check stolen object databases.  Proceed with caution.  For the full article and links to important resources:  ISIL and Antiquities Trafficking

Three Major Appraisal Organizations Unite to Alert the Public to Risks Associated with Engaging Uncredentialed Personal Property Appraisals

Circle of Trust

A Circle of Trust has been established by the three major professional societies for personal property appraisers to jointly promote education to the public regarding the importance of using credentialed appraisers.  They include the International Society of Appraisers, American Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of American.  The joint announcement states:

Members of these associations earn their credentials through a stringent admissions, training and testing process, are required to comply with IRS and AQB guidelines, adhere to a code of ethics, and to complete continuing education requirements. These qualifications provide a level of professionalism that is unmatched, and ensure the public that appraisals performed by an accredited appraiser are among the most reliable appraisals available.

All three organizations strongly urge the public to verify the educational and experiential background of an appraiser prior to retaining their services, and to be wary of red flags that indicate an appraiser may not be objective in conducting appraisals. These include charging for appraisals based on the appraised value of an item, or offering to purchase an item the appraiser has appraised. Professional, competent appraisers always conduct appraisals at “arm’s length,” without self-interest.

The full news release and contact information for the three societies can be found at PRSYNC.

 

  

HOW OLD IS AN ANTIQUE?

As an appraiser, I receive calls daily from potential clients saying they have an antique to be evaluated.   If the caller is in their twenties, they may be speaking about something only 30 years old.   On the other hand, if I ask a room full of senior citizens how many of them think they are antiques, the majority of people in the room raise their hands.  It’s a matter of perception.

Although we may see varying descriptions, there is a U.S. government definition for an antique.  Guidelines were originally established by the U.S. Customs Service for import tariffs.   In the Tariff Act of 1930 an antique was defined as an object made before 1830, after which mass production became common.  In 1993, Title VI of the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act (Pub. L. 103-182, 107 Stat. 2057), also known as the Customs Modernization or “Mod” Act, became effective.  These provisions amended many sections of the Tariff Act of 1930 and related laws.  Thus, there is a rule of 100 years old to describe something as “antique”.   

RESOURCES:

“Shopping For Antiques” from the Federal Trade Commission.

“Works of Art, Collector’s Pieces, Antiques, and Other Cultural Property” from U.S. Customs and Border  Protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

 

Kathi Jablonsky, ISA CAPP is a full time personal property appraiser designated in Antiques and Residential Contents with the International Society of Appraisers. She is based in Southern California and serves the San Diego and Palm Desert regions.