June – August 1995

By early 1933 the Great Depression had for three years been settling like a pall upon the United States, bringing mounting fear, hopelessness, unrest, and hardship in many and some-times horrible forms, including cases of death due to malnutri-tion. As many as 15 million Americans were unemployed (estimates vary), this in a labor force of 45 million. Millions more worked for reduced hours and wages. Farms and other businesses had failed by the millions, among them 11,000 banks (44% of the 1929 total), many of whose depositors had thereby lost all their savings.

The incoming Roosevelt Administration responded with uplifting rhetoric and massive federal intervention. Aimed at relief, recovery, and reform,” Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were unprecedented in size and sweep; and they permanently altered the American economic, social, and governmental landscape. Among them were Social Security, rural electrification, farm price supports, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Labor Relations Act, and regulation of banking and the stock market.

Among them, too, was massive spending on federal projects large and small. Behind this spending lay two motives, sometimes separate, sometimes mixed. One was to stimulate “recovery” by injecting money into the economy, in the form of payments for material, equipment, labor. Where this was the main motive, the projects were often “capital intensive,” involved heavy construction, and were administered by the Public Works Administration. The second motive was to provide basic sustenance — that is, “relief’ — for those working on the projects by putting wages in their pockets. Here the projects were often “labor intensive” and were ordinarily administered by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) or its predecessors, the main exception being the Civilian Conser-vation Corps.

The purpose of this exhibition is to elucidate those federal projects, with special concern for programs that supported the arts.

Taken together, New Deal projects offered artists and the arts their first significant support from the federal government. And since the arts are by their nature ordinarily “labor inten-sive,” they tended to fall within the WPA orbit.

Federal support rose initially from the twin perceptions that private patronage for creative artists had shrunk to a trickle by 1933 and that — as Harry Hopkins, the Iowa-born and –educated chief relief administrator, put it — “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”

The first programs were small, nestled principally in the Treasury Department. The main effort began in 1935, when the federal relief effort was reorganized and greatly expanded. Under the aegis of the newly created WPA, “Federal Project Number One” took shape, with separate projects in music, art, theater, and writing. As “Federal One” got moving, a tidal wave of culture swept the land. It would recede only in 1939, when WPA budgets were slashed in response to political opposition and economic recovery. A few arts projects limped into the 1940s. By 1945 they were gone.

But from 1935 to 1939, “Federal One” brought the arts to millions of Americans — which in itself came to be argued as further justification. The Music Project’s 122 symphony orchestras gave 225,000 performances before 150,000,000 people, more than half of whom had never heard a live orchestra before. Another 90,000 persons learned to play or sing at 250 Music Project teaching centers. The Theater Project’s 158 companies played to more than 25,000,000 people, most of whom had not seen a stage play before. The Art Project’s employees produced nearly a million works of visual art, which were distributed to schools, courthouses, hospitals, libraries, and other buildings. Each month, 60,000 people attended the free art classes offered by the Art Project wher-ever demand existed. The Writers Project employed white collar workers of every degree of literary competence. Some of them tramped the countryside discovering untapped fountains of folklore and history. Others distilled the resulting mass of information into what eventually amounted to seven twelve–foot bookcases of printed works, including assemblages of data invaluable to later researchers. (Other federal units gathered similarly important data.) Altogether, Federal One employed about 40,000 different people at one time or another, some of whom went on to gain fame in their fields of artistry, at a total cost of some $50,000,000.

A few artistically important New Deal projects lay outside the WPA’s orbit. Most notable, perhaps, was the photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration, whose talented photogra-phers produced thousands of indelible images of lives ravaged by the Depression.

As with many other New Deal programs, appraisals of the New Deal arts projects have been mixed, often varying according to the general attitudes toward federal intervention held by the persons doing the appraising. There is no denying that the arts projects put people to work who otherwise would have gone wanting, no denying that the present-day national endowments for the arts and humanities are largely a legacy of the New Deal arts projects. But in some degree the worth of the New Deal arts projects must be judged, too, on the basis of what they produced. This exhibition, it is hoped, will help viewers form such judgments for themselves.

This exhibition was prepared by Randy Essing, Ann Ford, Helen Ryan, and John Schacht, with the technical assistance of Pam Spitzmueller and Cynthea Mosier.