Saturday, October 4, 2014

WPA (Works Projects Administration) Posters

During the Great Depression the Works Project Administration (WPA) became the New Deal's largest employment agency - hiring millions of unemployed Americans to carry out public work projects.

Its goal was to provide one paid job for all families who suffered long term unemployment, and for the years 1935 through 1943 the WPA provided almost 8 million jobs.

One of the small projects was one called the FEDERAL PROJECT NUMBER ONE. This group consisted of five areas of employment: 1) the Federal Art Project, 2) the Federal Music Project, 3) the Federal Theatre Project, 4) the Federal Writer's Project and 5) the Historical Records Survey.

The Federal Art Project was run under the direction of Holger Cahill, a museum curator and authority of American  and Central American folk art. At one point Cahill was acting director of the newly formed Museum of Modern Art in New York City from 1922-1923.


The peak employment year - 1936 - over 5,300 artists were working on over 100,000 easel paintings, 17,700 sculptures, 11,200 print designs and 2,500 murals. In addition the Farm Security Administration  hired photographers (among them Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans) to document life in rural areas across the country. They produced 122,000 b&w negatives, 66,000 b&w prints and 650 color transparencies.*

Walker Evans
Allie Mae Burroughs by Evans

Dorothea Lange
"Migrant Mother" (Florence Owens Thompson) by Lange

Evans and Lange produced two of the most iconic images of the Depression "Allie Mae Burroughs" and "Migrant Mother."

Any list of artists employed by the Federal Art Project features such recognizable names  as Thomas Hart Benton, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Ferdinand Leger, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock,  Mark Rothko, John Sloan and Grant Wood.

Thomas Hart Benton, "Social History of the State of Missouri" (1936) located at the Missouri State Capital
John Sloan "Sixth Avenue and Fourteenth Street (1934)


My interest is centered on the wonderful posters created for the various sections of the Federal Art Project encompassing an eclectic range of subjects. Printmaking was revived during this era by FAP artists, and the development of different techniques (particularly silkscreen) enabled mass production of these posters.

These posters reflected a variety of topics tackled by the FAP:
The Nation's  System of Parks and Recreation

a Variety of Health Issues Facing Americans
Part of the FAP was the Art Teaching Division. Free art classes were offered at community centers all across the Nation, and frequent exhibitions were held.

And a wide variety of other topics


None of the New Deal programs succeeded in convincing the representatives of the American people that federal art patronage was such an important activity that it should be considered as a proper function of government, and therefore be continued. All New Deal art programs died with the arrival of World War II. In the prosperity that followed the war, the objective of supporting artists during a crisis could not be maintained. Not until the arrival of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the flourishing of various public art programs have U.S. government monies funded artists' works, though not to the degree that the New Deal programs did.

The General Services Administration (GSA) is now responsible for all of the artwork produced by the WPA and the Federal Art Project. They are trying to recover artwork from this era, and have produced a short documentary "Returning America's Art to America." The link to the film:

(statistics gleaned from various Wikipedia articles)