The New Deal and the Federal Art Programs

With Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the federal government invested in the nation’s cultural development for the first time in the country’s history. From 1933 to 1943, federal funding under New Deal programs supported the work of artists, photographers, writers, musicians, and others. It presaged advent of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1960s.

Four major arts programs of the New Deal

1. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), December 1933-April 1934
A short-lived experimental program funded under the Civil Works Administration, the PWAP is the brainchild of George Biddle, a mural artist who studied with Diego Rivera, and a friend of President Roosevelt.

Biddle, who admired the art of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and David Sequieros, envisioned the creation of murals in public buildings to convey the social ideals of the New Deal. Biddle wanted a new public art that distinguished itself from the traditions of European art with uniquely American images and ideas.

During the short existence of PWAP, 3,521 visual artists nationwide produced more 15,000 works of art under the general theme of the “American Scene.”

2.The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (later the Section of Fine Arts) 1934-43
Edward Bruce built on the successes of the PWAP to create a program that placed art in federal buildings. The section program divided the country into sixteen regions, each with a committee to guide the art activities of the regional districts. The best-known projects are the murals in at least one post office in each state. Overall, 1,371 commissions were awarded.

3. The Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), 1935-39
A program under the Treasury Section funded with a WPA $530,000 grant, and overlooking the requirement that artists be drawn from relief roles, the program drew the most criticism from artists themselves. TRAP’s highest artist employment reached only 356 of the 450 authorized for TRAP to employ.

4. Works Projects Administration/Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), 1935-43
With a whopping budget of some $35 million, Harry Hopkins, director of the WPA/FPA, gave writers, visual artists, and perfomrming artists a steady wage in return for art work that became federal property.The Federal Art Project readily assimilated the new technology of the day, incluing radio, film, sound recording, and photography, and even encouraged experimental forms of theater.

The visual arts component of the Federal Art Project had the largest impact, employing 5,300 artists and art professionals, and commissioning thousands or works of art, including 2,500 murals for public places, 108,000 paintings, and 18,000 sculptures.

The depiction of a national social consciousness is a common theme in WPA art.

The legacy of the New Deal

Many WPA artists went on after the Great Depression and the end of the New Deal to build respected careers in universities and to hang new artwork on the walls of prominent museums. Others became famous writers, poets, movie directors, playwrights, composers, and performers.

The WPA was not without its critics. Some artists felt the WPA pacified artists and siphoned off energy that might otherwise have been channeled into a vital and radical art movement.

Other artists hoped the WPA was the beginning of an abiding commitment to the arts by the federal government. But due to criticism from politicians and the press, as well as from artists themselves, federal funding for the arts was not renewed, and artists and others would not see the government so actively come to their aid again until the 1960s.

But the intense period of WPA/FAP funded Depression-era projects left indelible impressions on the nation’s identity. Artists of all stripes preserved moments in American history and pieces of minority cultures that might otherwise have vanished, recording oral histories chronicling the slave era; taping the music of cultures that have since been assimilated into post-World War II America; and capturing in black-and-white photographs the stark realities of America’s bread lines and soup kitchens, its dirt-poor tenant farmers, and its weary Dust Bowl migrants.

Recently many Americans have been interested in restoring New Deal art to its rightful place in the history of American art and making the public more aware of its existence. Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Interior has inventoried about 8,000 New Deal works of art.