Sweeping a long arm in an arc around the walls of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, deputy chief curator George Gurney fires off a string of locales. “This is Seattle, Washington,” he says. “This is St. Paul, Minnesota. That’s Peterborough, New Hampshire.” He continues through New England to Pennsylvania, California and New Mexico.
The show, “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” offers a panorama of the United States through the vision of artists in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first nationwide foray into public art.
“This gave people something to be proud about, for their locale,” adds curatorial associate Ann Prentice Wagner. Programs such as PWAP, which began the series of programs that culminated most prominently with the Federal Art Project (1935-43) commissioned murals for schools, post offices, libraries and community centers, and put sculpture in national parks.
Begun in December 1933 by an attorney-turned-artist named Edward “Ned” Bruce in the Treasury Department, the PWAP cranked out more than 15,000 works of art in just six months. It did this amid one of the bleakest seasons of the Great Depression.
When curators planned the exhibition last year to mark the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, they had no idea that headlines would overtake them. “Suddenly one day we pick up the newspaper and the whole world is upside down,” says the museum’s director, Betsy Broun. “Suddenly we’re current.”
Gurney thought of drawing from American Art’s own collection after strolling through the museum’s storage area and being amazed by the number of 1934 easel paintings—nearly 200. Indeed American Art has the largest collection of New Deal paintings in the country. Broun explains that’s because in 1934, what later became the Smithsonian American Art Museum was the only art museum with federal funding; works commissioned by the PWAP would end up there unless they found another home. “We’re really proud of our heritage as the first federally supported art museum in America,” says Broun. Gurney chose 55 pieces for the show. Opening now, as the Obama administration considers emergency relief on a scale not seen since FDR’s New Deal, “transforms the exhibition,” notes Broun.
Many New Deal programs represented a radical departure from government policy by treating artists, writers and musicians as professionals who provided services worthy of support. The PWAP scrambled to life in December 1933 with a one-month expiration date and pressure for results. Its director, Ned Bruce, wielded a fast brush and had a wide canvas. Gurney puts it simply: “Bruce encouraged people to paint the American scene.”
Bruce was tapped by Roosevelt to lead the PWAP at age 54, after a career as a railroad attorney, businessman, expatriate artist and lobbyist. He set the PWAP in motion quickly to pre-empt political blowback, a strategy that has a certain timeliness now. On December 8, 1933, Bruce invited more than a dozen people to lunch, extending a special invitation to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he would later call “the fairy godmother” of the public art program. Within days, all 16 regional directors, selected by Bruce, had accepted their jobs and were forming volunteer committees to identify artists across the nation. “Within eight days, the first artists had their checks,” Wagner says. “Within three weeks, they all did. It was amazingly fast. People were so excited.” Bruce capped it with a publicity blitz, appearing on a New York City radio station before the month was out.
Taking a phrase from a speech given by Franklin Roosevelt on December 6, 1933, Bruce called the PWAP an example of the President’s desire to give Americans “a more abundant life” with “the first completely democratic art movement in history.” Some were less sanguine. The project’s critics complained that taxpayer money was being wasted on decoration. A December 1933 report in the New York Times sounded querulous in announcing “that the administration has determined that work must be found for artists as well as for longshoremen.” To such complaints FDR replied, “Why not?” he said, “They have to live.”
The initial January 15 deadline was extended to June. PWAP commissioned roughly a third of the estimated 10,000 unemployed artists nationwide. The effect was electric. It jump-started people beginning careers in art amid the devastation. One-third of the artists featured in the current exhibition were in their 20s; more than half were in their 30s.