New Deal Arts Programs

During the Great Depression, artists were among the first to suffer as private commissions from middle class and wealthy patrons dried up virtually overnight. When New Deal policies started putting people back to work through an array of public works projects, Roosevelt's team recognized that artists were among the first to starve because they were considered expendable, and that they needed jobs just like everyone else. They also recognized that by supporting artists, they could create the right environment for an American arts renaissance.

Like many other aspects of the New Deal, federal initiatives in support of the arts took more than one form. Among the first programs was the Public Works of Art Project, which was funded by the Civil Works Administration from 1933-34. PWAP was administered by the Treasury Department, and lasted less than a year but employed nearly 4,000 artists who created thousands of works of art like paintings, murals and sculptures that embellished public buildings. Artists were selected by competition, and being on relief was not a requirement. PWAP artists created San Francisco's Coit Tower murals, believed to be the very first art works commissioned under the New Deal, in essence as a pilot project.

After the wrap-up of the CWA in 1934, the Treasury Department launched a larger effort to provide murals for post offices and other federal buildings known as the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, or just "The Section." The Section commissioned the murals in San Francisco's Rincon Annex Post Office, now known as Rincon Center.

With influence from Roosevelt's old college friend George Biddle, who was familiar with how publicly commissioned murals in Mexico reflected its history, New Deal administrators who handled visual arts commissions specified that murals should depict American scenes.

But visual artists weren't the only artists to go on government payrolls during the Depression. When the Works Progress Administration was created in 1935, Harry Hopkins, the chief architect of New Deal work programs, saw to it that the new agency embrace artists of all kinds. Collectively, the arts programs created under the WPA were known as the Federal One and included a variety of arts disciplines. As historian Gray Brechin puts it, "they covered all the bases in order to not only give artists jobs, but to bring art to all Americans, to really make it a part of the common language of the people."

The Federal Theater Project, for example, brought drama productions to people of all incomes, many of whom had never seen live theater, and supported the talents of artists including the actor, director, writer and producer Orson Welles; Burt Lancaster, who got his start in entertainment as circus performer supported by the FTP and later became a film star; and the actor and director John Houseman. Houseman later noted in a memoir that "within a year of its formation, the Federal Theatre had more than fifteen thousand men and women on its payroll at an average wage of approximately twenty dollars a week. During the four years of its existence, its productions played to more than thirty million people in more than two hundred theatres as well as portable stages, school auditoriums and public parks the country over."

Gray Brechin believes that one of the most interesting things to come out of the FTP was "The Living Newspaper," in which playwrights could take on all manner of contemporary issues, from slum conditions to malnutrition or even venereal disease and dramatize it. "It was a way of educating people and in some cases getting them angry about existing social conditions," he says. "So it really had a galvanizing effect on Americans because they'd never had anything like this before."

Meanwhile, the Federal Music Project sent orchestras all over the country to play in schools and community centers and placed music teachers in schools, and it commissioned new compositions by people like Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin, and Virgil Thompson. The FMP even built new auditoriums and supported studies of traditional American folk music.

Then there was the Federal Writers Project, which nurtured future literary masters like John Cheever, Langston Hughes, Saul Bellow, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright. The FWP put thousands of people to work compiling tourist guides for every state that would operate as incentives, once the Depression was over, for people to buy cars and explore the country by way of the roads and bridges that were built during the New Deal. FWP writers also compiled local histories and even wrote children's books. One of the most notable products of the FWP were the 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery in America before the Civil War, known as the "WPA Slave Narratives."

Finally there was the Federal Art Project, which produced art in all media, including murals. The FAP created about 5,000 jobs for artists and resulted in hundreds of thousands of works of art and kept artists who would later become famous, like Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, from starving with weekly paychecks of about $25-$33 -- just enough to function as stop-gap support until the economy recovered.

Some artists saw government-sponsored art as not just a creative opportunity in which they could give back to the community and join in celebrating American life, but as a political opportunity as well. For visual artists influenced by the tragedy of the Depression and by the artistic movement known as Social Realism, New Deal support offered an opportunity to reflect on the social problems that were occurring at the time and even to publicly declare, through their art, their support for the radical politics that were taking hold in some parts of the country. Some artists of the era saw capitalism as a failed political ideology that had ruined the lives of the vast majority of middle and lower class Americans; to them, using public money to create pubic art that critiqued the status quo surely felt like a natural and appropriate act. But not everyone thought so, as evidenced by newspaper attacks on the murals at Coit Tower and Rincon Annex.