What’s the Deal about New Deal Art?

As the first of the New Deal acts that funded public art projects with federal money, the PWAP produced more than 15,000 works of art in just six months

Arthur E Cederquist Old Pennsylvania Farm in Winter
Old Pennsylvania Farm in Winter, Arthur E. Cederquist, 1934. Smithsonian American Art Museum

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.

“Every artist I have spoken to,” Harry Gottlieb, an artist from Woodstock, New York, wrote in a letter to Bruce in January 1934, “is so keyed up…putting every ounce of his energy and creative ability into his work as never before.”

“You’re telling the artists: you matter,” says Wagner. “You’re American workers too.”

Although mainly intended for economic impact, the program was also an investment in public morale, says Gurney. The works would hang in schools and libraries, federal buildings and parks—places where people could see them. Bruce made this point repeatedly in talking to the press, saying this was the most democratic art movement in history. By the time it ended, the PWAP’s price tag for 15,663 pieces of art was $1.312 million. Roughly $84 per work.

In April 1934, when most of the paintings were done, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. held a PWAP exhibit. The organizers held their breath, fearing a backlash from critics. This was make-work, after all, not the slow process of creative art.

The exhibit showed an eclectic range of styles, from William Arthur Cooper’s folk- art view of a Tennessee lumberyard to the modernist geometry of Paul Kelpe’s view of an American factory. Louis Guglielme, in New Hampshire, practiced what he called “social surrealism,” using a floating perspective to give the scene of a town green an uneasy sense of malaise. Arthur Cederquist’s Old Pennsylvania Farm in Winter is both a realistic vision of rural life and a glimpse of technology’s arrival: railroad tracks, overhead electric and telephone lines. Its colors tend to bleached, wintry grays and browns—a proto-Andrew Wyeth atmosphere. Ilya Bolotowsky, an abstract painter, adapted his modernist perspectives to an otherwise traditional barbershop scene. “This is not just pure realism,” Gurney points out; using the barber’s mirrors, Bolotowsky “tipped things up and forced them out at you.”

The response to the Corcoran show was overwhelming. The New York Times gave a glowing review, and congressmen and cabinet secretaries lined up to request paintings for their offices. At the front of the line was the White House, which displayed a selection of them. A year later, more public art projects followed, including the Federal Art Project and another Treasury program that Bruce headed up.

Many more New Deal works remain in collections around the country, often where they were painted. (The PWAP also commissioned murals, including scenes in San Francisco’s Coit Tower, which were not fully appreciated until much later: Kenneth Rexroth, the poet who later announced the Beats, is immortalized in one of the Coit Tower murals climbing a ladder to a high library shelf.)

Does the exhibition take a stand on whether the government should invest in art for emergency relief? Broun demurs. “My argument,” she says, “is: Wow, when the government really does invest in documenting and understanding and inspiring its people, the legacy is really fabulous. That’s how we know ourselves.” She quotes Roosevelt, who said, “One hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not its relief.” American Art has launched a website, “Picturing the 1930s,” which provides a view of popular culture at the time through articles, images and film: http://www.americanart.si.edu/picturing1930/.

David A. Taylor is the author of Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Wiley), published in February.

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