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WPA Art Passes the Test of Time
by Bob Brooke


The year is 1935 and the Great Depression is in full swing. In an effort to help provide economic relief to the citizens of the United States, Congress created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Today, collectors admire the wonderful art produced as a result of this program during that depressed time.

In March of 1933, soon after Roosevelt's inauguration, the New Deal came into being.
The President’s goal, with the help of Congress, was to restore the banking system, help Americans in need, and turn around a very depressed economy.

The unemployment rate in 1935 was at a staggering 20 percent. Congress designed the WPA to provide relief for the unemployed by providing jobs and income for millions of Americans. At its height in late 1938, more than 3.3 million Americans worked for the WPA.

The Works Progress Administration or WPA, renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration, was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of mostly unskilled men to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. In a much smaller project, Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.

What the New Deal did produce, however, was wonderful collecting genres through the WPA. The WPA was one of the more successful New Deal programs because it created jobs and was not just a handout of cash. The government supplied funds to local governments stating the money was to be used to find useful work for people. The funds were not to train people to work, but to pay people to use the skills they already had.

Another stipulation to the funding was the jobs performed should benefit the community. The WPA didn’t set out to create attractive jobs meant to generate a large income. Doing so would have put the government in competition with private industry, which was also struggling. Instead WPA jobs were to help people make enough income to feed their families without hurting their self respect and hopefully, keeping these people off of other government programs.

According to the program’s guide, the "WPA was a compilation of varied work projects that provided employment for artists, musicians, actors, authors, and laborers which helped to put 8.5 million men, women and youth back to work. "Those working through the WPA created public buildings, public parks, roadside rest areas, and the like.” National and state parks were prime benefactors through the building of campsites, roads, and visitor centers.

WPA workers built more than 4,000 new schools, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees. All this for an average salary of $41.57 a month.

As weapons production for World War II began ramping up and unemployment dropped, the federal government decided a national relief program was no longer needed. The WPA shut down in June of 1943. At that time, unemployment was less than two percent as many Americans went to work in the armed services and defense industries.

Federal Project Number One
In addition to its well-known building and infrastructure projects, the WPA also oversaw a group of programs collectively known as Federal Project Number One. These programs employed artists, musicians, actors and writers.

Roosevelt intended Federal One to put artists back to work while entertaining and inspiring the larger population by creating a hopeful view of life amidst the economic turmoil.

Artists created motivational posters and painted murals of “American scenes” in public buildings, especially post offices. Sculptors created monuments, and actors and musicians performed classic and new plays. Federal One also established more than 100 community art centers throughout the country.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied FDR to sign the executive order establishing Federal One. She later praised the project in columns and speeches and defended it against critics who saw the arts as a waste of money.

Federal One comprised a small part of WPA expenditures. Roughly $27 million of the nearly $5 billion that had been earmarked for WPA work programs went to the arts. The WPA arts programs led to the later creation of the National Foundation of the Arts.

WPA Architecture
Historians often refer to the architecture of many U.S. buildings constructed as part of Great Depression relief projects as “PWA Moderne”—for Public Works Administration Moderne---or “Depression Moderne.” The style blended neoclassical and Art Deco elements.

While inequities existed under the programs, many women, blacks and other minorities found employment with the WPA. In 1935, the WPA employed approximately 350,000 African Americans, about 15 percent of its total workforce. The Federal Music and Theatre projects also supported black musicians and actors.

A Gallup poll in 1939 asked Americans what they liked best and worst about FDR’s New Deal. The answer to both questions was “the WPA.”

Some politicians criticized the WPA for its inefficiencies. WPA construction projects sometimes ran three to four times the cost of private work. Some of this was intentional. The WPA avoided cost-saving technologies and machinery in order to hire more workers.

Federal Art Project
This project was directed by Holger Cahill and in 1936, the peak for employment in this federal project, the Federal Art Project employed over 5,300 artists. The Arts Service Division created illustrations and posters for the WPA writers, musicians, and theaters. The Exhibition Division had public exhibitions of artwork from the WPA, and artists from the Art Teaching Division were employed in settlement houses and community centers to give classes to an estimated 50,000 children and adults. They set up over 100 art centers around the country that served an estimated eight million individuals.

The WPA paid low wages and wasn’t able to employ everyone—some five million were left to seek assistance from state relief programs, which provided families with $10 per week. However, it went a long way toward bolstering the self-esteem of workers throughout the country. The WPA program in the arts led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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