Artists Helped Lift America out of the Great Depression. Could that Happen Again?Historians in the News
tags: New Deal, art history, Arts, public art, Federal Arts Project
In some ways, 2020 feels a lot like 1935: US unemployment is high, a recession looms, and there’s a need for communities to pull together. And thus I became curious about how the Federal Art Project and other similar initiatives worked, what kind of restrictions and freedoms the artists had, and whether such a program might work today. So I called Jody Patterson, the Roy Lichtenstein chair of art history and an associate professor at Ohio State University, to ask. Patterson is the author of the forthcoming book Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York from Yale University Press, and studies the interaction of art and politics in 20th-century American art. We talked about the origins of the WPA arts program, the role of public art, and how shifting ideas about the purpose and meaning of art might affect any efforts to start a new federal arts program today.
How did the Federal Art Project and related arts projects come about?
One thing to bear in mind is that the Federal Art Project was a part of a much bigger and broader initiative: the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, which was a very visible project — pump-priming, keeping the unemployed [working], maintaining their skills, putting them back to work. This included everything, like building dams and bridges and roads.
What’s so unique about Roosevelt’s vision was he included culture in those provisions. That the arts were part of a much larger New Deal for the American public — a testament to “the more abundant life” he kept emphasizing in the midst of the Great Depression — is really key.
The Federal Art Project was part of something called Federal One, which had projects not just for the fine arts but also for theater, for writing, for music. There was a design index. It was one aspect of a really diverse and wide-ranging kind of project.
Another thing that’s important to bear in mind: Art production, art reception, audiences, patronage, galleries, museums — all of that had really been centered in a handful of urban centers like New York and Los Angeles, as it continues to be today. The Federal Art Project took on the whole nation as part of the project. It brought exhibitions, educational centers, and art lessons across regions that had not been well-served, and into communities that had very much been disenfranchised from culture.
So in addition to traveling exhibitions, one of the really key aspects of the Federal Art Project was the community art centers. In communities such as Harlem or the South Side of Chicago, unprecedented opportunities opened up for African American artists. We don’t even have a program like that today.
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