Depression-era program created a ‘New Deal for Artists’

George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the American Art Museum, was looking for a place to showcase some of the nearly 150 or so paintings created in 1934 in the museum’s collection of New Deal art when something happened that most of us can identify with: money got tight.

Photo: The oil on canvas “Radio Broadcast” by Julia Eckel was painted as part of the Public Works of Art program.

Originally, Gurney envisioned the Depression-era collection displayed floor-to-ceiling on the 40-foot-high-walls of the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon. But then a more exciting opportunity arose. A suite of galleries in the museum’s main building became available and needed a budget-friendly exhibition to fill the space for 10 months. Thus was born “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” a collection of 56 paintings created under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Program, the first government-funded national art program in the United States.

George Gurney, left, and Ann Prentice Wagner in the exhibition “1934: A New Deal for Artists.” (Photo by Harold Dorwin)

George Gurney, left, and Ann Prentice Wagner in the exhibition “1934: A New Deal for Artists.” (Photo by Harold Dorwin)

It is tempting to draw parallels between the economic situation in 1934 and the current economic crisis, but Gurney maintains that the timing of the exhibition is purely coincidental. Still, PWAP represented the U.S. government’s response to a philosophical and political debate that is pertinent today—whether and how the arts can play a role in economic recovery initiatives. Convinced that art was key to sustaining America’s spirit, federal officials created PWAP to give work to promising, mostly young, American artists. They were paid to produce art for schools, post offices, courthouses and other public buildings. The program cost taxpayers just over $1 million.

“Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people,” top Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins famously replied when asked why the government wanted to hire so many artists.

Curatorial associate Ann Prentice Wagner says word about PWAP spread quickly, largely through articles in local newspapers, which she collected during the course of her research. Other documents she discovered in the Archives of American Art make it clear that many of the artists seeking funding were desperate.

“Somewhere in America” by Richard Brackman, 1934.

“Somewhere in America” by Richard Brackman, 1934.

“Some would send letters,” she explains. “They would write, ‘There’s a baby on the way. Please pick me.’ ”
Within weeks of PWAP’s creation, arts advisors in 16 U.S. regions recruited 3,749 artists for the program, giving them little direction about what to create, other than asking that the work depict “the American Scene.”

As it turns out, most of artists created representational works rather than abstract. “The idea was that [the artists] wanted to paint something that people could relate to,” Gurney says.

The program was open to artists who were denied other opportunities, including women, African Americans and Asian Americans. About a quarter of the PWAP artists were immigrants. “They were very proud of the fact that the government was hiring them,” Gurney says.
Paid between $15 and $45 per week, PWAP artists collectively produced more than 15,000 murals, paintings, sculptures, textiles and other works in about six months, from mid-December 1933 to June 1934.

In April 1934, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., exhibited some 500 PWAP works and 32 paintings were selected by President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for the White House. Several of the works chosen by the Roosevelts, including Millard Sheets’ “Tenement Flats,” depicting the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles and Ray Strong’s “Golden Gate Bridge,” were selected by Gurney for the exhibition at American Art.

The other paintings Gurney chose for the PWAP exhibition run the gamut, from cityscapes and images of urban life to landscapes, portraits of rural life and industrial scenes. Many of the works celebrate American ingenuity and emerging technology. Stadium lighting was still rare when Morris Kantor painted “Baseball at Night,” which depicts a nighttime game in West Nyack, N.Y. In “Golden Gate Bridge,” Strong captures the engineering feats required to build the iconic San Francisco bridge. A landscape by Paul Benjamin prominently features mailboxes, paying homage to newly established rural mail delivery.

But other works suggest the economic despair of the times. “The Farm,” a painting by Japanese-American artist Kenjiro Nomura, depicts deserted barns under a lowering sky. At the time the work was created, Wagner says, “A lot of Asian American farmers in Washington state got by only because they ate what they grew themselves.”

Many of the paintings are winter scenes. One could infer the artists were suggesting hard times. On the other hand, Wagner cautions, it may simply be due to the fact that the artists were hired in the winter of 1933.

“1934: A New Deal for Artists” is on view at SAAM through Jan. 3, 2010. The museum also has created a Flickr group to share nearly 400 artworks and related objects dating to 1934 from its collection. Visitors can comment on their favorites or contribute their own 1934 images to the group.

A virtual movie theater, part of a new educational Web site created by SAAM in collaboration with the University of Virginia, encourages visitors to learn more about the New Deal era. “Picturing the 1930s” explores the decade through paintings, artist memorabilia, historical documents, newsreels, period photographs, music and video. Visitors can even discover their own inner filmmaker and create a documentary video.

Posted: 4 May 2009
About the Author:

Rita Zeidner, a Washington-based business and health writer, is a long-time contributor to The Torch and Inside Smithsonian Research.

One Response to Depression-era program created a ‘New Deal for Artists’
    • Lowell Ashley
    • Some readers might be interested to know that Kent Boese, former arts cataloger at Smithsonian Institution Libraries, proposed a new Library of Congress subject heading, New Deal art, in 2004. Surprisingly, no one at the Library of Congress or anywhere else had proposed it earlier. More than 70 titles in the SIL SIRIS database now use this subject heading: