The Federal Art Projects and New Mexico

An uneven economy meets dual catastrophes

The New Mexico Territory gained statehood in 1912, only seventeen years before the beginning of the Great Depression. New Mexico’s economy up to that time had been uneven. Land grant disputes left the small Hispanic villages of northern New Mexico isolated and impoverished. Oil and gas brought revenues into northwest and southeast New Mexico. The discovery of petroleum reserves necessitated forming a tribal government for the Navajo Nation to negotiate its revenues. The Navajos’ vast herds of sheep and horses brought wealth to many. The railroads brought trade, transportation, and the beginnings of tourism to the state. Mining of coal and minerals enriched the economy of the western and southeastern parts of the state.

Many people came from the east to New Mexico’s high desert climate to recover from tuberculosis and remained as residents. Taos and later, Santa Fe were established as artist colonies attracting artists, writers and anthropologists from the east and from Europe. The railroads that crossed New Mexico provided economic stability to the towns along them. Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Gallup remained relatively stable due to the railroad’s need for crews and maintenance shops, coal, and timber.

The dual catastrophes of the Great Depression and the decade-long drought brought extreme hardship to northern and eastern New Mexico (which was included in the five-state area called the Dust Bowl). During this time poor areas of the state got poorer.

New Deal programs support survival, growth, and art

By 1935, half of New Mexico’s 425,000 residents were enrolled in New Deal programs, and for many, it meant survival.

New Deal programs supported building of roads, dams, parks, schools, post offices, museums, theaters, training centers, art and art education programs. While criticism of the New Deal grew steadily toward the end of the Great Depression, the benefit of the New Deal Programs is part of the nation’s history and is still in evidence in New Mexico.

The Federal Arts Programs made possible for nearly 200 artists and artisans to survive as productive artists during an extremely difficult time in the state’s history. In return, their legacy to the state and the nation includes:

  • more than 65 murals in New Mexico’s public buildings;
  • more than 650 paintings;
  • hundreds of prints
  • ten sculptures
  • thousands of photographs and films documenting projects and places
  • hundreds of posters and graphics
  • and the state’s contribution to the Index of American Design which includes the Portfolio of Spanish Colonial Design in New Mexico and the New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State (1940), the popular tourist guide that has become an historic chronicle of New Mexico at the end of the Great Depression.

What’s going on with New Mexico’s New Deal art today

Most artists and writers continued to produce art after the New Deal, and many established national reputations in the arts. The market for New Deal art grew in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s, with many artists’ work in sought by collectors and museums. The public interest in the art of this time is in part due to its historic value but there is something more to its appeal.