The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Posts Tagged ‘WPA’

“1934: A New Deal for Artists” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

In Legislation, Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation on March 6, 2009 at 9:24 am

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is currently (through January 3, 2010) showing a wonderful exhibit of examples from the Public Works of Art Program. Here’s information excerpted from the web site:

Image for 1934: A New Deal for Artists

In 1934, Americans grappled with an economic situation that feels all too familiar today. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Public Works of Art Program—the first federal government program to support the arts nationally. Federal officials in the 1930s understood how essential art was to sustaining America’s spirit. Artists from across the United States who participated in the program, which lasted only six months from mid-December 1933 to June 1934, were encouraged to depict “the American Scene.” The Public Works of Art Program not only paid artists to embellish public buildings, but also provided them with a sense of pride in serving their country. They painted regional, recognizable subjects—ranging from portraits to cityscapes and images of city life to landscapes and depictions of rural life—that reminded the public of quintessential American values such as hard work, community and optimism.

1934: A New Deal for Artists celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Program by drawing on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s unparalleled collection of vibrant paintings created for the program. The 56 paintings in the exhibition are a lasting visual record of America at a specific moment in time. George Gurney, deputy chief curator, organized the exhibition with Ann Prentice Wagner, curatorial associate.

A catalogue, fully illustrated in color and co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and D Giles Ltd. in London, is forthcoming in July 2009. It will feature an essay by Roger Kennedy, historian and director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; individual entries for each artwork by Ann Prentice Wagner; and an introduction by the museum’s director Elizabeth Broun. The book will be available online and in the museum store for $49.95 (softcover $35).

Flickr Group
The museum is sharing nearly 400 artworks and related objects dated 1934 from its collection with the public by creating an image group on Flickr. Join the group and add your images from 1934!

On NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, reporter Elizabeth Blair did a story called ‘1934’: Reflecting On America’s First Big Art Buy. You can listen to the story on the web site, and see examples from the exhibit.


In The Center on March 6, 2009 at 9:01 am

We have bookmarks! If you’d like a few, send us an email: You can also pick up a bookmark (and a book) at appearances by author Kirstin Downey and her newly published book, THE WOMAN BEHIND THE NEW DEAL: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience. (Click on the link to see her book tour schedule.)

bookmark front

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The artwork is from a Works Progress Administration mural at the Detroit Public Library by Marvin Beerbohm.

What did “socialism” (the WPA) do for us?

In New Deal Legislation on February 6, 2009 at 7:51 am has a slideshow illustrating some of the achievements of the New Deal. (Click the photo below to be taken to the slideshow.)

One of the slides showing WPA projects.

One of the slides showing WPA projects.

The creative economy and the New New Deal

In Programs on December 15, 2008 at 11:25 am

FDR’s New Deal didn’t immediately end the Great Depression. What it did do is give people hope that things would get better. In many different ways, the New Deal breathed life back into a nation mired in the depths of despair.

Understanding human psychology, what we might call Social Intelligence or Emotional Intelligence today, is an important component of leadership. When Frances Perkins’s daughter, Susanna, suggested that artists were worthy of the same sort of relief that other workers were receiving, Frances brought the idea up with the president, who immediately saw the value of such a program. As Frances describes in her memoir of Roosevelt:

Projects to give work to unemployed teachers, artists, and theatrical people needed enlightened understanding and courage to be endorsed and developed. The President hadn’t realized, as perhaps none of us had, the degree to which professional people and artists failed to sustain themselves when the national income had shrunk to the lowest level. People out of work do not give music or dancing lessons to their children nor buy tickets to the theater, The President had a keen feeling for the sensibilities of recipients of this relief. (The Roosevelt I Knew by Frances Perkins. Viking, 1046)

She goes on to say about FDR:

He liked people to have a good time in their own ways.

Having a good time was a key ingredient in American life that had been lacking for too long. FDR’s support for this simple idea, along with his gleeful smile and obvious sense of fun, lifted the spirits of Americans and helped them bear the continuing economic distress. The works commissioned by the Works Progress Administration brought beauty to many communities ravaged by poverty.

Rockville, MD, Post Office mural

Rockville, MD, Post Office mural

Today, the arts add richness to our lives in many ways. In addition to the joy of seeing a good play or hearing a wonderful concert, we know that the arts are a significant part of our economy. For example, here are some statistics compiled by

Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts Industry

Total Economic Activity      $166.2 Billion
Total Spending by Nonprofit Arts Organizations  $63.1 Billion
Total Spending by Nonprofit Arts Audiences  $103.1 Billion

Total Full-Time Equivalent Jobs Supported  5.7 Million

Total Tax Revenue Generated     $29.6 Billion
Federal Income Tax Revenue     $12.6 Billion
State Government Revenue     $9.1 Billion
Local Government Revenue     $7.9 Billion

Total Household Income Generated   $104.2 Billion

So, in a severe economic downturn, how should government sustain the artistic community? In a humorous essay in yesterday’s New York Time Book Review, Paul Greenberg proposes a bail out for writers, based on FDR’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which eliminated overcapacity in the nation’s farms — in other words, paid farmers not to plant crops. He jestingly offers a plan to pay writers not to write.

As funny as the piece is, what’s happening in the publishing world isn’t funny in the least. As the economy tanks, our creative economy will feel the pain, just as it did in the 1930s. As unemployment rises, audiences shrink. Nonprofit arts organizations are already feeling the pinch.

A program to support and sustain the arts could help both creators and their audiences. Artists of all types could be helped by a significant increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and state arts commissions. And to raise our flagging spirits today? Make sure that some of that funding is earmarked for ticket subsidies — so the price of attending arts performances is within reach of all.