The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal attempt to combat the Depression. This included the Federal Art Project (FAP) that provided finance for the employment of artists. Headed by Holger Cahill, it employed artists on relief while maintaining a small number of non-relief artists for supervisory positions. Artists received $23.50 per week and were expected to produce one major piece within a specified number of weeks or to work a certain number of days on a mural or architectural sculpture project.
In 1936 the Federal Art Project was employing more than 5,000 artists. In eight years (1935-43) the FAP produced 2,566 murals, more than 100,000 easel paintings, 17,700 sculptures and 350,000 fine prints. The cost of the FAP was over $35,000,000.
Records of the Work Projects Administration [WPA]
Established: In the Federal Works Agency (FWA) by Reorganization Plan No. I of 1939, effective July 1, 1939.
- Civil Works Administration (CWA, 1933-34)
- Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA, 1933-38)
- Works Progress Administration (1935-39)
Abolished: By Presidential letter, December 4, 1942, effective June 30, 1943.
Successor Agencies: Division for Liquidation of the Work Projects Administration, FWA (July 1, 1943-June 30, 1944) FWA and NYA as functional successors.
Finding Aids: Francis T. Bourne, comp., "Preliminary Checklist of the Central Correspondence Files of the Work Projects Administration and Its Predecessors, 1933-44," PC 37 (1946).
Related Records: Record copies of publications of the Work Projects Administration and its predecessors in RG 287, Publications of the U.S. Government. Records of the Civilian Conservation Corps, RG 35.
Records of the National Youth Administration, RG 119.
General Records of the Federal Works Agency, RG 162.
Subject Access Terms: New Deal agency.
69.2 RECORDS OF THE CIVIL WORKS ADMINISTRATION
History: Established by EO 6420-B, November 9, 1933, under authority of the National Industrial Recovery Act (48 Stat. 200), June 16, 1933, to provide relief work for unemployed persons through public work projects. Functioned simultaneously, and to some extent with the same personnel, with Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Liquidated March 1934, and functions and records transferred to the Emergency Relief Program of FERA.
69.2.1 General records
Textual Records: CWA central files, including a "state series" of correspondence concerning program administration and projects within a single state or territory and a "general subject" series, 1933-34. Correspondence and telegrams relating to the continuance and operation of CWA programs, 1934. Microfilmed project records, arranged by state, 1933-34 (608 rolls). Microfilmed CWA reports of progress, employment, hours and wages, completed projects, and statistics, 1933-39 (22 rolls).
Photographs (1,550 images): CWA projects in Wisconsin, primarily construction and repair of public buildings, 1933-34 (CWA, CM). SEE ALSO 69.10.
69.2.2 Field office records
Textual Records: Microfilmed administrative and project files, 1933-34 (888 rolls), including indexes, final state reports, engineering records, easements and rights of way, progress reports, CWA and state reporting forms, correspondence, and other records for projects in the following states:
69.3 RECORDS OF THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY RELIEF ADMINISTRATION
History: Established by authority of the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933 (48 Stat. 55), May 12, 1933, to allocate grants to state and local agencies for direct and work relief, to set minimum relief standards, and to coordinate information on relief problems, policies, and procedures. Liquidation provided for in the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1936 (49 Stat. 1611), June 22, 1936 postponed by Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1937 (50 Stat. 357), June 29, 1937. Funds for liquidation expired June 30, 1938.
69.3.1 General records
Textual Records: Correspondence, 1933-36, arranged in an "old general subject" (alphabetical) series, and a "new general subject" (decimal classification) series. Records relating to the history of federal relief programs, 1935. State relief statutes, 1930-34. Fragmentary records of the Office of the Assistant Administrator, relating to policy, wages, hours, worker classifications, self-help cooperatives, and "white-collar" projects, 1934-36. Microfilmed records (75 rolls) including applications for grants-in-aid, 1933-36 records relating to state relief programs, 1933-39 correspondence of FERA and WPA officials relating to relief activities, 1933-42 FERA work programs, 1934-40 completed, transferred, or discontinued projects, 1935-37 and requests for information, 1933-40. Records relating to relief trends, 1933-36, and urban relief, 1933-38. Tabulations of FERA relief data, 1933-40.
Maps (11 items): U.S. county outline maps illustrating manufacturing, mining, and agricultural employment, derived from 1930 census data, n.d. (4 items). U.S. real property housing survey locations, ca. 1935 (1 item). Proposed dam at Bonaparte, IA, 1934 (6 items). SEE ALSO 69.7.
Photographic Prints (1,444 images): FERA projects in various states, Puerto Rico (PR), and the Virgin Islands (VI), including pictures from the North Carolina Emergency Relief Administration, 1934-35 (FERA, FERAC). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Subject Access Terms: Chattel mortgages drought relief Florida hurricane disaster, 1935 Hopkins, Harry L. Resettlement Administration rural rehabilitation Williams, Aubrey.
69.3.2 Records of the Division of Self-Help Cooperatives
History: Under the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, administered a program of grants to states to enable cooperatives to produce and exchange goods and services.
Textual Records: Monthly progress, financial, and field reports, 1933-37. Correspondence, 1933-37. General subject file relating to cooperatives, 1933-37.
69.3.3 Records of the Transient Division
History: Supervised grants to states for relief of indigent persons otherwise disqualified by residency requirements.
Textual Records: Statistical reports, 1933-36. Surveys of camp facilities, 1933-36. Policy records on establishment of work camps and the WPA reorganization of the transient program, 1933- 36. Camp newsletters, 1934.
69.3.4 Records of the Work Division
History: Created following termination of the CWA to encourage state and local relief projects. Issued regulations and procedures, and gave technical advice to relief agencies supervising work projects.
Textual Records: Procedural bulletins, 1934-36. Correspondence and reports concerning a rural electrification survey, engineering and construction projects, the drought relief and subsistence garden programs, and the mattress-making project of the Women's Section, 1934-36.
69.3.5 Records of the Emergency Education Program
History: Established in Education Division, October 1933, to supervise state and local projects for adult education in literacy, arts and crafts, vocational training, parent education, and child care. Assisted in operating nursery and rural schools.
Textual Records: Reports, memorandums, correspondence, and some teaching material, 1933-39. Subject index to subject series and general correspondence file, 1938-39.
Related Records: Program records after 1939 in WPA central files, 69.4.1. Additional records relating to college student aid in RG 119.
69.3.6 Records of the Sectional Economic Research Project
Textual Records: Correspondence, memorandums, reports, and research material relating to political, social, industrial, and agricultural studies of the U.S. economy, 1934-37.
69.3.7 Records of other FERA divisions and projects
Textual Records: Personnel data, training materials, and conference and narrative reports of the Social Service Training Program, 1934-36. Records of the Adjustment Division, including complaints from states concerning program administration, 1934- 35.
69.3.8 Records relating to research, statistics, and finance
History: FERA Statistics Section (after 1935, the Relief Statistics Unit) collected weekly and monthly reports from state and territorial relief administrators showing the number of families and persons receiving relief funds and the total cost to federal, state, and local governments. Statistical reporting activities continued under the WPA Division of Statistics. SEE 69.4.8.
Textual Records (111 rolls of microfilm): Relief reports, 1933- 42. Financial records relating to Reconstruction Finance Corporation funds, 1933-34. Audit reports of state relief administrators, 1933-40. Monthly statements of expenditures, 1934-42. Correspondence of FERA and WPA divisions of research and statistics, 1935-42. Records relating to summary financial statements, 1936-40. Statistical reports and other records relating to FERA special relief programs, including the Emergency Education Program, 1933-37 College Student Aid Program, 1934-35 Rural Rehabilitation Program, 1934-37 Transient Program, 1934- 40 Drought Relief Program, 1934-36 Domestic Service Training Program, 1936-37 and National Reemployment Service, 1933-34.
69.3.9 Records relating to rural rehabilitation activities
Textual Records: Microfilmed records (14 rolls) relating to financial matters, 1935 the transfer of rural rehabilitation activities to the Resettlement Administration, 1935-36 and rural rehabilitation colonies including Cherry Lake Farms, FL Dyess Colony, AR Matanuska Valley Colony at Palmer, AK and Pine Mountain Valley Rural Community, GA, 1933-40.
69.3.10 Regional Records
Textual Records: Microfilmed project folders, registers, and other records, 1933-36, relating to FERA relief projects in GA (50 rolls), LA (30 rolls), MA (103 rolls), ND (30 rolls), and OH (83 rolls).
69.4 RECORDS OF THE WORK PROJECTS ADMINISTRATION AND ITS PREDECESSORS
History: Established as Works Progress Administration by EO 7034, May 6, 1935. Assumed dominant role in work relief activities. Operated through a central administration in Washington, DC, regional offices, state administrations, and district offices. Renamed Work Projects Administration and placed under FWA, 1939. SEE 69.1.
69.4.1 General records
Textual Records: Central correspondence files, 1935-44, including a "general subject" series (309 ft.), and a "state" series (870 ft.). Partial index, 1935-38. Fragmentary correspondence and memorandums, Office of the Commissioner, 1935-41. Original and microfilmed records (92 rolls) relating to allocation of funds ("Presidential Letters"), 1935-43. Microfilmed records relating to WPA liquidation, 1943 (1 roll). Final narrative reports, 1943.
Finding Aids: Francis T. Bourne, comp., "Preliminary Checklist of the Central Correspondence Files of the Work Projects Administration and Its Predecessors, 1933-44," PC 37 (1946).
Subject Access Terms: Cooperatives disaster relief Historic American Buildings Survey Historic Merchant Marine Survey Works Progress Advisory Board.
69.4.2 Administrative records
Textual Records: CWA, FERA, and WPA procedural, technical, and research publications, 1935-43, including the WPA Manual of Rules and Regulations. Project manuals, 1935-43. Memorandums, telegrams, circular letters, copies of speeches, and minutes of FERA-WPA conferences, 1935-43. Organizational charts, 1935-42. Correspondence with prominent individuals and organizations, 1935-38. FERA and WPA complaint correspondence, 1933-36. Records of the liaison officer for the WPA Oklahoma State administration, 1937-39 and of the Operations, Statistical, and Employment Divisions for Region 1, relating to DC, DE, and MD. Miscellaneous microfilmed records (22 rolls) relating to WPA microfilm program, statistics, and other administrative activities, 1935-43.
69.4.3 Records of the Division of Information
Textual Records: Newspaper and magazine clippings, 1935-42. Records relating to world's fairs, 1937-40. Publicity files, 1935-38. Press releases, 1936-42. Press clippings and other records concerning Blacks, the WPA and other relief agencies, and relations with the Negro press, 1936-40. State WPA publications and publicity materials, 1936-42. Records concerning the Alabama Federation of Women's Clubs' "Works Program Study," 1938-39 the U.S. Community Improvement Appraisal Survey, 1937-39 and National Defense Projects, 1939-42. Reports of physical accomplishments, 1936-38. "Boondoggling" charges ("Attacks on WPA"), 1935-36. Letters of commendation, 1937-42. Records relating to restoration of historic sites, 1937-38. Speeches, 1936-42. Records of the motion picture, photographic, and radio sections including lists of films, correspondence, and scripts, 1936-42. Statistical reports, press releases, and other records relating to CWA, FERA, and WPA programs, 1933-39.
Motion Pictures (105 reels): Produced or distributed by the Motion Picture Record Division and successors, relating to WPA, NYA, and CCC activities, 1931-41. Among the holdings are films documenting WPA educational and vocational training, public works, fine arts, flood relief activities, and cooperative programs with the National Rifle Association (NRA). Included are the noted government produced documentary films: "Hands," "Work Pays America," and "We Work Again."
Photographs (43,500 images): WPA programs and activities nationally, and in Washington, DC, New York City, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico and WPA and New Deal officials, and celebrities, 1934-42 (N, NN, NS). SEE ALSO 69.10.
69.4.4 Records of the Division of Engineering and Construction
History: Created in December 1935. Responsible for planning and supervising construction projects for highways, airports, dams, and sanitation works.
Textual Records: Central classified files, 1935-43. Correspondence, reports, and statistical data, 1935-43. Administrative and project files of sections: Engineering Review, 1935-36 Municipal Engineering, 1937-40 Highway and Conservation, 1936-39 Airways and Airports, 1935-42 Project Application, 1936-40 Defense Coordination, 1941-42 and Safety, 1934-41.
Finding Aids: Estelle Rebec, comp., "Preliminary Checklist of Records of the Division of Engineering and Construction of the Work Projects Administration, 1935-43," PC 46-38 (1946).
Related Records: National defense project files are among the records of the Legislative and Liaison Division in RG 165, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs.
Subject Access Terms: Lanham Act.
69.4.5 Records of the Division of Professional and Service Projects
History: Known successively as the Division of Professional and Service Projects, 1935-41, the Division of Community Service Programs, 1941-42, and the Service Division, 1942-43. Supervised federally sponsored "white collar" work relief projects including the federal arts programs and the recreation and education programs. For records relating to specific projects, SEE 69.5.
Textual Records: Index to division records in WPA central files, 1935-39. State narrative reports, 1935-39. Scrapbooks of "This Work Pays Your Community Week" exhibits by state offices, 1940- 41. National and state final reports, 1942-43. Final state reports of the women's, professional, and service projects, 1934- 37. Index to national and state final project and program reports, n.d.
Maps: Real property surveys in GA, 1939-41 (64 items). Cartographic studies at WPA New York office, 1939-40 (72 items). SEE ALSO 69.7.
Finding Aids: Francis T. Bourne, comp., "Preliminary Checklist of the Records of the Survey of Federal Archives, Work Projects Administration, 1935-43," PC 14 (June 1944) Betty Herscher, comp., "Preliminary Checklist of the Records of the Historical Records Survey, 1935-42," PC 45-6 (Mar. 1945).
69.4.6 Records of the Division of Investigation
History: Established by Bulletin No 11, June 26, 1935, as a successor to the FERA Division of Special Inquiry, to investigate complaints alleging fraud, misappropriation of funds, disloyalty, and other irregularities.
Textual Records: Miscellaneous correspondence, interoffice memorandums, and field reports, 1935-43. Microfilmed records (831 rolls) including FERA, CWA, and WPA investigation case files, with indexes, 1934-43 restitution case files, with indexes, 1935-43 FBI investigative reports, with indexes, 1934- 43 and field office and state investigative records, 1935-43.
69.4.7 Records of the Division of Finance
Textual Records: Correspondence with states relating to supply fund limitations, 1935-43. Restitution cases files relating to recovery of misappropriated funds, 1935-43, with name and state indexes. Microfilmed CWA, FERA, WPA, and NYA fiscal records, 1934-37 (15 rolls).
69.4.8 Records of the Division of Statistics
History: Known also as the Division of Social Research the Division of Research, Statistics, and Finance and the Division of Research, Records, and Statistics. SEE ALSO 69.3.8.
Textual Records: General administrative correspondence, statistical tabulations, and materials used at appropriation hearings, 1935-43. Microfilmed reports (425 rolls) of Area Statistical Offices, 1936-37 physical accomplishment and progress, 1937-42 the WPA scrap collection program, 1940-43 employment and expenditure, 1937-41 monthly and quarterly NYA statistics, 1937-41 and national defense employment, 1939-42.
69.4.9 Records of the Project Control Division
History: Responsible for examination and processing of project applications.
Textual Records (2,559 rolls of microfilm): General correspondence, 1935-43. Project applications, with reference cards, for general, 1935-44 federal, 1935-38 research, statistical, and survey, 1935-39 and nonstatistical projects, 1935-38. Records relating to sponsors' agreements, 1934-41 and to project status, 1935-42. Inspection reports, 1939-43. Research and records projects reference card files, 1941-42.
Microfilm Publications: T935, T936, T937.
69.4.10 Records of other WPA divisions
Textual Records: Correspondence, memorandums, reports, and other records of the Divisions of Management, 1940-43 Adjustment, 1934-35 Supply, 1940-43 Safety, 1934-41 Employment, 1935-36 Training and Reemployment, 1940-43 Records and Microphotography, 1937-43 Social Research, 1935-42 Recreation, 1935-43 Education, 1935-38 and Women's and Professional Projects, 1937.
69.5 RECORDS OF WPA PROJECTS
History: The Division of Engineering and Construction and the Division of Professional and Service Projects administered WPA projects. The majority were planned, initiated, and sponsored by cities, counties, or states. WPA sponsored nationwide projects until 1939.
69.5.1 Administrative records of Federal Project No. 1
History: Federal arts program approved as WPA-sponsored Federal Project No. 1 on September 12, 1935, to provide employment for qualified artists, musicians, actors, and authors. Superseded all art projects operating under FERA or WPA state administrations. Consisted of the Federal Art, Music, Theatre, and Writers' Projects and until October 1936, the Historical Records Survey. Terminated June 30, 1939. Except for the Federal Theater Project, abolished July 1939, the arts programs continued as state projects.
Textual Records: Records of the finance officer, 1935-39. Correspondence relating to quotas and budgets in states, 1936-39. Weekly statistical reports, 1936-37.
69.5.2 Records of the Federal Art Project (FAP)
History: Established in August 1935. Terminated September 1939 with instructions for states to allocate all project art work to eligible tax- supported public institutions.
Textual Records: General records, 1935-40. Correspondence with regional and state offices, 1935-40. Records relating to publicity and exhibitions, 1936- 37. Reports of the Exhibition Department, 1936-37. Scrapbook relating to National Art Week, Chicago, IL, 1941. Records of federal art projects in NY, NJ, and OH, 1934-42. Records relating to allocation of WPA works of art, 1937-43 (2 rolls of microfilm).
Photographs (10,903 images): General photographic file and state file documenting fine arts, practical arts, and art education artists and their work exhibits art centers officials and dignitaries such as FAP director Holder Cahill, and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1936-43 (AG, AS 3,050 images). New York City art program, including artists and their work, 1935-43 (AN, ANM, ANS 7,303 images). Depictions of life in New York City, including photographs by Sol Liebsohn, David Robbins, and Helen Levitt, 1935-39 (ANP, 550 images). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Subject Access Terms: Index of American Design.
69.5.3 Records of the Federal Music Project (FMP)
Textual Records: Narrative reports of state activities, 1935-40. Reports relating to education, 1936-40 employment, 1936-40 performance and attendance, 1936-40 and American composers, 1936-38. Records relating to folk music, 1936-40 the Composers Forum Laboratory, 1935-40 music festivals, 1935-40 and music research, 1935-36, including cowboy, Creole, and Negro folk music. Programs and schedules, 1936-40. Press clippings, 1936-40. Subject file of correspondence, reports, and press releases, 1936-40. Records relating to Nikolai Sokoloff, director, FMP, 1935-39, and Harry L. Hewes, project supervisor, 1936-40. Scrapbooks relating to the FMP activities in New York City, 1936-41.
69.5.4 Records of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP)
Textual Records: Correspondence of the national office, 1935-39, including that of Hallie Flanagan, National Director, 1937-39. Correspondence with regional and state offices, 1935-39. Statistical, narrative, and activity reports lists of plays and publicity material, 1935-39. Press clippings and releases, 1934- 39. Records relating to production of "It Can't Happen Here," 1936-37. Letters of commendation, 1935-39. Records relating to CCC entertainment, 1936-39. Vassar College collection of press clippings, programs, and promotional material relating to FTP, 1935-39. Correspondence and other records relating to the National Service Bureau, 1935-39.
Architectural and Engineering Plans (29 items): Blueprints showing floor plans, lighting plans, and stage scenery for FTP productions, 1938-39. SEE ALSO 69.7.
Photographs (25,092 images): FTP productions, 1935-39 (TMP, 92 items). Production scenes, sets, theaters, audiences, performances, playwrights, WPA officials, and politicians, 1935- 39 (TC, TS 25,000 images). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Photographs, Original Drawings, and Paintings (333 images): FTP costumes and set designs, 1935-39 (TSR). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Posters (290 images): Advertising FTP productions, 1935-39 (TP). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Related Records: Federal Theatre Project archives are in the custody of the Special Collections, George Mason University Libraries, Fairfax, VA.
Subject Access Terms: Children's Theater dance Dies Committee Dramatists' Guild Federal Theatre National Advisory Board Jaffe, Sam "Living Newspaper" marionette projects Meredith, Burgess Negro theater.
69.5.5 Records of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP)
History: Organized in 1935 to give employment to writers, editors, historians, researchers, art critics, archaeologists, geologists, and map draftsmen.
Textual Records: Central office correspondence and memorandums, field reports, manuals of instruction, and lists of consultants and references, 1935-39. Records relating to publishing, 1936-39, and to publicity, 1935-41. Correspondence relating to ethnic, ex- slave, folklore, architectural, Indian, and Negro studies, 1935- 40. Records relating to the American Guide, 1938-39, and the History of Grazing, 1940-42 state publications, 1936-41, and record cards of state sponsored publications, n.d. and the Library of Congress Project Writers' unit, 1939-41. Records of the Massachusetts Writers' Project, 1935-40, including radio scripts and correspondence of the New Bedford, MA, district office. Correspondence and other records of the Los Angeles, CA, district office, 1935-37. Microfilmed records (3 rolls) concerning FWP copyrights, 1935-40 and the Alaska Writers' Guide, 1939-45.
Photographs (2,500 images): For use in American Guide series, including scenic, historical, cultural, and economic aspects of each state Washington, DC PR and VI and including also some scenes of Venezuela, 1936-42 (GU). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Finding Aids: Katherine H. Davidson, comp., Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Federal Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration, 1935- 44, PI 57 (1953).
69.5.6 Records of the Historical Records Survey (HRS)
History: Organized in 1935 as part of the Federal Writers' Project, to document resources for research in U.S. history. Became an independent part of Federal Project No. 1 in October 1936 and a unit of the Research and Records Program, Professional and Service Division, in August 1939. Terminated February 1, 1943, pursuant to Presidential letter, December 4, 1942.
Textual Records: General project and editorial correspondence, 1936-42. Reports of progress, 1936-42 employment, 1936-39 and from field supervisors, 1936-42. Records of conferences and speeches, 1936-41. Project applications, 1936-39. Press clippings and publicity materials, 1936-42. Instruction manuals, n.d. Records relating to the origin of the Survey, 1934-36 and to collections of records and manuscripts, 1935-36. Microfilmed records (8 rolls) relating to the American Imprints Inventory, 1939-42. Voting lists and copies of statutes used in the Atlas of Congressional Roll Calls Project, 1937-41.
Maps (33,913 items): Atlas of Congressional Roll Calls Project, documenting the 1789-1941 geographic distribution of yea-nay roll call votes, boundaries of congressional districts, counties, federal court jurisdictions, and city wards, 1937-41. SEE ALSO 69.7.
Subject Access Terms: Evans, Luther H.
69.5.7 Records of the Survey of Federal Archives (SFA)
History: Organized in January 1936 as Federal Project No. 4, with the National Archives as cooperating sponsor. Became part of Historical Records Survey, on a reduced basis, in June 1937. Terminated June 30, 1942.
Textual Records: General records including correspondence, memorandums, reports, and bulletins, 1935-42. Correspondence with regional offices, 1936- 43. Abstracts pertaining to the progress and coordination of state surveys, ca. 1936-43 area index pertaining to state administrative activities, n.d survey reports on motion picture, photographic, and sound recording collections, 1936-40. Project superintendents' reports, 1936-37. Reports of the location, title, and dates of each series of records surveyed, 1936-40. Survey of nonfederal records, 1936- 40. Manuscripts, 1936-42.
Photographs (3,000 images): Survey of federal archives, 1936-41 (SFA). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Finding Aids: Francis T. Bourne, comp., "Preliminary Checklist of the Records of the Survey of Federal Archives, Work Projects Administration, 1935-43," PC14 (1944).
69.5.8 Records of the Research and Records Project
History: Assembled and analyzed statistical information for WPA- sponsored projects.
Textual Records: Project application files, general administrative correspondence, reports and unpublished studies, procedural material, statistical data, and copies of publications charts and related records pertaining to surveys and projects, ca. 1935-42 and final project reports, 1935-42.
Related Records: Record copies of publications of the Research and Records Project in RG 287, Publications of the U.S. Government.
69.5.9 Records of the National Research Project (NRP)
History: Studied changes in industrial techniques and their effects on the volume of employment and unemployment. Most of its records were turned over to the Bureaus of Labor Statistics and Agricultural Economics.
Textual Records: Reports, memorandums, and correspondence, 1941- 42. Statistical reports of the survey of American listed corporations, 1938-1942.
Photographs (800 images): Workers, working conditions, and housing in fourteen industrial communities, by Lewis Hine, NRP chief photographer, 1936-37 (RP, RPA, RPM, RPR). SEE ALSO 69.10.
Photographic Prints (800 images): Illustrations for reports showing workers engaged in agricultural, manufacturing, mining, and transportation occupations, 1936-40 (RH). SEE ALSO 69.10.
69.5.10 Records of the Public Work Reserve Project
History: Studied proposed postwar projects.
Textual Records: Correspondence, consultant files, and project summaries, 1941-42. Records relating to 6-year state plans, defense and war projects, scrap collection program, and service projects, 1941-42.
69.5.11 Records of other WPA projects
Textual Records: Administrative correspondence and procedural manuals of library service and newspaper indexing projects, 1935- 42 Library of Congress project to inventory and arrange records of WPA arts projects, 1940-41 the workers service program, 1935- 43 and a project to teach Spanish to members of the Army Air Forces, 1941-42. Reports and miscellaneous records of the recreation program, 1934-43. Entry slips of the bibliography of territories and island possessions. Records of the social service training program, 1934-36.
69.6 FIELD RECORDS
69.6.1 General records
Textual Records (10,886 rolls of microfilm): Correspondence, administrative files, project folders, sponsors' reports, ledgers, organizational and functional charts, accomplishment reports, and other records, 1935-43, for the following states and territories:
69.6.2 Records of the Massachusetts WPA
Textual Records (in Boston): General administrative records of the Massachusetts WPA administrator, and records relating to the Salem, MA, Customs House Restoration Project, 1938-41 (in Boston).
Engravings (11 images, in Boston): Linoleum block engravings of eleven historical buildings, 1930's. SEE ALSO 69.10.
69.6.3 Records of the California WPA
Textual Records (in San Francisco): Records of the San Francisco office of the Survey of Federal Archives, consisting of survey sheets, 1936-38 and records relating to the WPA Ships Registry Project for ships registered between 1850 and 1910 at the port of San Francisco, 1938-40. Records of Hope L. Cahill, director of the Division of Professional Service Projects, and state director, Division of Community Service Programs, 1936-42.
69.7 TEXTUAL RECORDS (GENERAL) 1931-44
Reports and correspondence pertaining to relief programs in Puerto Rico, 1934-44 Private relief bill case files, 1938-44 Name index to litigation case files, n.d. Litigation case files, 1934-44 Project indexes to microfilmed records, n.d. Copies of speeches, articles, and related records, 1931-43 indexes to microfilmed state records, ca. 1935-43 original project records retained after microfilming (film illegible), 1935-43 WPA library card indexes, n.d. Historical records survey and survey of federal archives publications, 1936-41 Bibliography of territories and possessions, n.d. Miscellaneous scrapbooks, ca. 1939-41 Records of the Public Work Reserve Project, 1941-42 Records pertaining to the Central Statistical Board, 1933-40 Procedural records relating to state work projects administrative offices, 1935-38 General administrative and procedural records, ca. 1935-41 Miscellaneous administrative and project records, 1935-44.
69.8 CARTOGRAPHIC RECORDS (GENERAL)
Maps: Mostly published and blueprint city and county transportation, land, and census study maps resulting from various WPA projects (155 items). Included are Buffalo NY railroad survey blueprints maps of Philadelphia PA showing juvenile delinquency by census tract maps of St. Paul MN census tracts city of Madison WI town of Wilton NH town of Northhamnpton MA (Sanborn Company insurance maps) Lincoln and Vilas counties, WI (showing C.C.C. camps and other features) and maps of Hancock County MS showing land use (manuscript in color). There is also a map of the United States showing Land Office meridians and baselines. Percent of U.S. population receiving federal relief, by counties, 1933-36 (2 items). U.S. outline map, n.d. (1 item). Florida functional conservation map, 1940 (1 item). WPA work districts, 1936 (1 item).
SEE Maps UNDER 69.3.1, 69.4.5, and 69.5.6. SEE Architectural and Engineering Plans UNDER 69.5.4.
69.9 MOTION PICTURES (GENERAL)
69.10 SOUND RECORDINGS (GENERAL)
Sound Recordings: Performances by FMP groups, many with intermission talks by prominent persons about WPA work, 1936-42 (140 items). Radio broadcasts, 1937-42 (265 items), including FTP programs, 1937-39. FMP performance recordings featured both established and lesser-known musicians. Included among the programs are: a thirteen (13) part series on the history of jazz individual concert band performances those of folk singers of symphony orchestras of acappella choirs of madrigal singers of string quartets and of jazz bands. Radio programs sponsored by Democratic National Committee in support of New Deal programs, n.d. (6 items) and by Department of the Treasury urging the purchase of U.S. savings bonds, n.d. (4 items). Drama produced by the Resettlement Administration, n.d. (1 item) Department of Agriculture program on conservation, n.d. (1 item) and a program about the White House made by the National Broadcasting Company for the Federal Housing Administration, n.d. (1 item).
69.11 STILL PICTURES (GENERAL)
Photographs (3,484 images): Documenting program, activities, and personnel of WPA, FERA, and FWA, including pictures taken during area studies of AL, IA, OH, and PA exhibits, construction projects, conservation, health and sanitation efforts employed and unemployed workers WPA art, music, theater and writing activities and WPA officials, including Florence Kerr, 1934-42 (MP, 3,300 images). Defense-related projects such as construction of airports, roads, armories, training camps, and navy yards, 1935-42 (DC, 184 images).
Photographic Prints (10,765 images): WPA professionals in New York City at work in white collar positions, 1935-39 (NY, 700 images). Public Works Administration projects, such as highways, public buildings, bridges, dams, schools, sewer systems, and power plants, 1936-42 (PWA, 3,500 images). Hurricane and flood damage in CT, MA, RI, VT, and NH, 1938 (MPH, 150 images). Prints used in Reports on Progress of the Works Program, 1935-41 (PS, 446 images) and in reports highlighting state accomplishments, 1935-43 (PR, 3,439 images). State WPA projects, primarily TX, 1937-41 (PT, 2,530 images).
Photographic Negatives (1,205 images): Program activities of the Public Housing Administration, U.S. Housing Authority, Public Road Administration, and the Federal Works Agency, 1939-44 (B, H, R, F).
Color Transparencies (28 images): FWA, WPA, Public Roads Administration, U.S. Housing Authority, Office of Civil Defense, and Office of Price Administration activities and projects, including a Key West, FL, housing project, a Middle River, MD, nursery school, and a San Diego, CA, school, 1940-42 (C).
Aerial Photographs (11,000 images): Vertical and oblique views of airports and airport sites collected by the WPA Airways and Airport Section and used in an historical survey of U.S. airport systems, 1922-40 (AAA, AAB, AAC, AAN).
SEE Photographs UNDER 69.2.1, 69.4.3, 69.5.2, 69.5.4, 69.5.5, 69.5.7, and 69.5.9. SEE Photographic Prints UNDER 69.3.1 and 69.5.9. SEE Photographs, Original Drawings, and Paintings UNDER 69.5.4. SEE Posters UNDER 69.5.4. SEE Engravings UNDER 69.6.2.
Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States. Compiled by Robert B. Matchette et al. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995.
3 volumes, 2428 pages.
This Web version is updated from time to time to include records processed since 1995.
U.S. Department of the Treasury
During the Depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929, thousands of businesses and banks failed and a quarter of the American workforce was unemployed. An unintended benevolent consequence of the economic hardships of the times was that attendance at many American museums reached an all-time high. Having little money for anything else, the appeal of free museum admissions attracted many Americans who, for the first time, were exposed to and appreciated works of art. Through New Deal initiatives under President Franklin D. Roosevelt beginning in 1933, there was a confluence between the heightened awareness of public art, the employment relief needs of artists, and the creation of artwork for newly constructed federal buildings that resulted in three public arts programs that were administered out of the Treasury Department.
Figure 1: IRS building and Street Scene by Edwin Doniphan, 1934, Oil on canvas
“The Treasury Department has erected, or is erecting, and has control of some 2,800 buildings scattered over the United States and its insular possessions. Under the Section of Painting and Sculpture, organized by Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau on October 16, 1934, approximately 300 of these buildings have been decorated through reservations made under the building fund of each building. With the exception of these buildings, no funds are available and it is not possible to put murals or sculpture in the remaining ones. Consequently, a request was made to the President by Mr. Edward Bruce [of the Treasury Department] on April 12, 1935, for funds from the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935-37 for a project to employ competent, unemployed artists in decorating Federal buildings where there was no money available for this decoration under the building fund. This broadens the scope of the Treasury Departments Art Program and enables the Government to obtain first-rate works of art for many of its buildings at the “going” WPA wage rate, as specified in Executive Order No. 7046. The results of this work will be a permanent and important addition to the wealth of this country. A wealth which will increase in value as time goes on and as its worth is more justly appreciated.” - Interim Report, Treasury Relief Art Project, May 1, 1936.
Figure 2: Treasury Administrator Edward Bruce (L) and artist George Biddle (R). Biddle went on to paint a series of murals at the Justice Department Building in Washington, DC (pictured here).
Much of the momentum to create and manage the arts programs at the Treasury Department were provided by artist George Biddle and Treasury administrator Edward Bruce. Biddle was a practicing artist who had traveled and lived in Europe and had worked with some of the best mural painters in Mexico. On May 9, 1933 he wrote a letter to newly elected President Roosevelt (FDR) suggesting the government create opportunities in federal buildings for American mural painters to “improve the quality of American life”. Two weeks later FDR had arranged for Biddle to meet with Treasury Assistant Secretary Lawrence Robert, Jr who oversaw the federal building construction program through the Supervising Architect’s Office.
When Biddle and Robert met in June, Biddle learned that Congress had approved funds for the decoration of the new Department of Justice and Post Office buildings in Washington, DC but they were reluctant to spend the funds on a “luxury” like art. Shortly after the meeting Biddle wrote a letter to various government officials, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, proposing a “Revival of Mural Painting” in America. Mrs. Roosevelt passed the letter along to FDR who approved of the concept. Treasury Assistant Secretary Robert was also impressed with the plan as was the Justice Department building architect Charles Borie.
Within the Treasury Department, the greatest advocate of Biddle’s proposal was Edward Bruce, an expert on monetary policy who had joined Treasury in 1932 and was a good friend of Assistant Secretary Robert. In addition to his financial pedigree, Bruce was an amateur artist and enthusiastic arts advocate. In October of 1933 Bruce held a series of gatherings at his Washington home to discuss ideas for how the government could support a national arts program. While Assistant Secretary Robert and the Treasury Department supported the idea of an arts program there was not a mechanism within the department to provide a funding source. To secure funding, Bruce and Biddle met with Public Works Administrator Harold Ickes. At the meeting, Ickes supported the program and agreed that it could be funded through the Relief Administration administered by Harry Hopkins. Hopkins saw no distinction in being able to provide a relief opportunity for artists than it would be for plumbers or any other profession and allocated $1,039,000 to the arts program.
Figure 3: Bridge and Monuments by Mitchell Jamieson, Watercolor on Paper, c.1935
The Collection at the Treasury building includes 62 works of art from the New Deal WPA arts programs that operated over a ten year period from 1933 to 1943. The Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project was the largest and the most widely known program. There is less awareness of the three WPA programs that operated directly out of the Treasury Department: The Public Works of Art Project, the Section on Painting and Sculpture and the Treasury Relief Act. The contributions of these programs remain highly visible to this day in many of the country’s federal buildings. The connection between New Deal artwork and the Treasury continues through the stewardship and display of WPA artwork in the Treasury building.
“Art in America has always belonged to the people and has never been the property of an academy or a class. The great Treasury projects, through which our public buildings are being decorated, are an excellent example of the continuity of this tradition. The Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration WPA is a practical relief project which also emphasizes the best tradition of the democratic spirit. The WPA artist, in rendering his own impression of things, speaks also for the spirit of his fellow countrymen everywhere. I think the WPA artist exemplifies with great force the essential place the arts have in a democratic society such as ours.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 10, 1939.
Summary of the four New Deal arts programs:
· Public Works of Art Project
· Section on Painting & Sculpture
· Works Projects Administration Federal Art Project
The first federal art program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was a crash relief program administered without a strict relief test by the Treasury Department. The program lasted six months from December 1933 to June 1934, employing 3,700 artists at a cost of approximately $1,312,000.
The Section of Painting and Sculpture program, later called the Section of Fine Arts was created by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and was the second federal arts program administered by the Treasury Department. It obtained paintings and sculptures through competitions to decorate new federal buildings, largely post offices and court houses. Inaugurated in October 1934, the program ended in 1943 after awarding approximately 1,400 contracts for art at a cost of $2,571,000.
The Treasury Relief Act was formed on July 21, 1935 by an initial allocation of $530,784 from the WPA to the Treasury for the decoration of federal buildings, administered under the same relief rules as the WPA. The section administering the act employed 446 people including 275 artists, 75% of whom were on relief (WPA employment rates ranged from $69 to $103 per month). The cost of the program was $833,784 and was operated up until 1939.
The Work Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP) was part of a wider government program called Federal Project No. 1, which included the visual arts as well as drama, music and writing. It was started in 1935 and was administered according to the relief rules of the WPA. The program employed over 5,000 people and cost $35,000,000 lasting until June of 1943.
 The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
 Interim Report, Treasury Relief Art Project, May 1, 1936, National Archives, Still Picture Branch, Record Group 121, Public Buildings Service
How the New Deal’s Federal Arts Programs Created a New American History
Nina Silber has been a member of the faculty at Boston University since 1990, where her teaching and research have focused on issues related to the Civil War, gender, and historical memory. The recipient of numerous awards &ndash including fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Harvard University&rsquos Warren Center &ndash Professor Silber has also published several books including The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (1993) Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992) Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (2005) and Gender and the Sectional Conflict (2008). Her most recent book, This War Ain&rsquot Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, looks at issues raised in this essay, especially how the Civil War became a point of political contention in the years of the Great Depression and New Deal.
A Class at the Harlem Community Art Center Funded by the Federal Arts Project
Tensions have been brewing at George Washington High School in San Francisco over a series of murals that tell a less than heroic story about America&rsquos first president. Completed in 1936 by a left-wing immigrant painter, Victor Arnautoff, the murals have prompted discomfort among students and parents. Their objections focus not on the mural&rsquos critique of Washington but on its inclusion of a dead Native American and African American slaves. Although Arnautoff apparently intended to expose Washington&rsquos racist practices &ndash his ownership of slaves, his role in killing Native people &ndash the mural also shows people of color in positions associated with servitude and violence. Given that, it&rsquos not hard to imagine the uneasiness students of color might feel as they walk, everyday, past these paintings. A committee recently recommended painting over the offending frescoes.
Members of the George Washington High School community should have the ultimate say in the types of images chosen to represent their school. But there&rsquos also a backstory to these murals &ndash and other art works like it &ndash that could easily be obscured in this discussion. A recent New York Times article puts the San Francisco dispute in the context of the many controversies currently swirling over &ldquohistorical representations in public art&rdquo, including protests about &ldquoConfederate statues and monuments&rdquo that have recently &ldquobeen dismantled&rdquo. While it&rsquos true that Confederate monuments were placed in public spaces &ndash like city parks and courthouse squares &ndash and so might be considered a type of &ldquopublic art&rdquo, the George Washington High School murals are a different order of &ldquopublic art&rdquo altogether. Both were placed in public spaces but only one took shape as a result of public funding.
The San Francisco murals sprang from a broad government-funded arts initiative, part of Franklin Roosevelt&rsquos New Deal, which made possible the creation of thousands of art projects around the United States in the 1930s. Part of the Works Progress Administration, these arts initiatives included numerous dramatic performances organized by the Federal Theatre Project countless posters and murals created by the Federal Art Project and the mammoth American Guide series as well as oral histories of black and white Americans done under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project. Significantly, these projects offered employment to artists, writers, dramatists, and musicians hit hard by the economic circumstances of the Great Depression.
In contrast, the money behind Confederate monuments and statues came almost exclusively from white private organizations, societies like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who called on wealthy donors and used their political connections to get monuments placed in public settings. With Jim Crow measures effectively silencing black Americans in the political arena &ndash and so preventing them from raising objections to the placement of these statues &ndash tributes to the Confederacy appeared in prominent public spaces in towns and cities across the South in the first half of the twentieth century.
The New Deal arts programs &ndash including the program that sponsored Victor Arnautoff&rsquos San Francisco murals &ndash represented a singular response to the kind of &ldquopublic art&rdquo initiatives that celebrated the Confederacy. Writers, actors, and artists who lacked the economic clout of the UDC received government funding and were able to keep their art in the public eye. As a result, a diverse array of artistic approaches and interpretations circulated, including work produced by left-wing muralists like Arnautoff and African American writers like Richard Wright and Sterling Brown. The WPA even supported a &ldquoNegro Theatre Project&rdquo that was established in twenty-three cities across the US. Because of the New Deal&rsquos commitment to fund artists without extensive resources, it was possible to create, even for a short period of time, a more racially, ethnically, and politically diverse conversation. Indeed, the New Deal&rsquos commitment to the arts made it possible, for the first time since the Civil War, for a richer and more democratic conversation about the American past to unfold in public settings. This should signal to us how vastly different the WPA&rsquos version of &ldquopublic art&rdquo was from the &ldquopublic art&rdquo sponsored by Confederate apologists.
None of this means that New Deal art followed a modern-day standard for &ldquopolitical correctness&rdquo or that these works were without historical distortions. These programs did, however, allow for a more inclusive narrative. Consider, for example, that within a three-month period in 1936, two plays telling vastly different stories about the Civil War era appeared under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project. One, Jefferson Davis, made its New York premiere in February 1936. With a UDC-approved script, this federally funded play upheld the Confederacy&rsquos right to secede not over slavery but so the South &ldquomay decide the question for ourselves as the constitution promises we may&rdquo. The other play, Battle Hymn, opened in New York in May, and told of John Brown&rsquos antislavery campaign in Kansas and Harper&rsquos Ferry. Written by two left-wing dramatists, Michael Blankfort and Mike Gold, Battle Hymn sympathetically portrayed Brown as a reluctant insurrectionist, ultimately compelled to use violence because of his abhorrence of slavery. In his review, the theater critic for the New York Post explained: &ldquoI&rsquod rather miss any show in New York than this one.&rdquo
In 1939 the newly created House Un-American Activities Committee cut the cord on the Federal Theater Project. HUAC members objected, most of all, to the left-wing leanings of WPA artists and writers. Ironically, they judged the work of dramatists like Blankfort and Gold &ldquoun-American&rdquo while a play honoring the Confederacy&rsquos four-years-long military effort to break up the United States never even popped up on HUAC&rsquos radar. The Federal Art Project continued through 1943, giving artists a few extra years to create murals and sculptures for schools, post offices, and government buildings, including a mural by William Scott, installed in the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, DC that shows Frederick Douglass urging Lincoln and his cabinet members to enlist black men in the Union army. Even after the Art Project folded, many of these more permanent forms of art &ndash including Scott&rsquos mural as well as Victor Arnautoff&rsquos frescoes &ndash remained in place. While Arnautoff&rsquos murals have little to say about the Civil War &ndash they focus, of course, on the school&rsquos namesake &ndash they nonetheless challenged a well-established pro-Confederate history that had a strong hold in the public arena.
Like other New Deal initiatives, those murals push back against a history that papered over racist atrocities, whether it was the first president&rsquos betrayal of Native Americans, or the brutal injustices practiced by slaveholders &ndash from George Washington to Jefferson Davis - in the pursuit of economic and political gain. Without government funding, it would have been almost impossible for this alternative narrative to gain much of a foothold in the public imagination.
Federal Art Project - History
The WPA Federal Art Project
By Jerry Wilkinson
<> In the 1930s, the Great Depression had every U.S. family in its grasp. Some of these were artists and Harry Hopkins under President Franklin Roosevelt started an experimental program known as the Public Works Art Program. This program was short lived, however, Harry Hopkins transitioning from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created the Federal Arts Project (FAP) in 1935 and directed by Holger Cahill. The FAP was a sub unit of the WPA.
United States wide, the Federal Art Project existed in the forty-eight states. Its strongest outreach program was in art education for children. FAP maintained more than 100 community art centers across the nation, managed art programs, and held art exhibitions of works produced by children and adults. Under this program thousands of posters, prints, sculptures, paintings, drawings, and murals were produced, which were then, in turn, loaned to schools, libraries, galleries, and other institutions. These programs spawned a new awareness of and appreciation for American art and provided jobs for needy artists. World War II brought its demise as efforts were concentrated on the war effort however, during its life an estimated number of artworks produced were: 2,566 murals, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 easel paintings and 240,000 prints.
The FAP had two goals: 1) To provide artworks for non-federal public buildings and 2) To provide jobs for unemployed artists on relief rolls.
There were three types of FAP activities:
1) Production of works of art--easel division. This emphasized nationalism and the rediscovery of America in artwork subjects mural division, where the focus was on works for public places with regional differences occurring e.g. Chicago for realistic American scenes, New York City for abstract murals, and California for an Oriental theme sculpture, where artists were encouraged to work in less expensive materials and graphic arts, which produced posters for the government.
2) Art education -- including the establishment of community art centers. Art centers as institutions devoted to community education rather than practical training were rare before FAP. By December 1936, there were 25 art centers in the south and west. The heart of the community art center was its educational program through classes for adults and children. Miami and Key West had active WPA community art centers.
3) Art research through the Index of American Design. The goal was to make an historical and pictorial record of the daily life of American people. They produced 20,000 index plates in six years of operation. Specific kind of designs studied included: textiles, glass, ceramics, copper, brass, to name a few and regional varieties such as the Shaker materials in New England.
To qualify for work in FAP, artists had to meet the professional standards as artists, and also the relief requirements of their state WPA relief board. After being selected to be on the project, artists were reviewed periodically and could be removed from a project if their financial status changed or if their work was unsatisfactory.
The FAP ended with the closing of the fiscal year on June 30,1943, when the government turned its attention towards the war efforts. Actually there had been two President Franklin Roosevelt government sponsored art projects before the August 29, 1935 inaugurated FAP. They were the Section of Painting and Sculpture and the Public Works of Art operated by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
(The WPA also administered the Federal Writers Project which accomplished much the same for needy writers. It was directed by Henry Alsberg and administered by Ellen Woodward. U.S. One - Maine to Florida (1938, Modern Age Books, Inc. New York) was one of its works.) - THE FLORIDA KEYS - Joan van Breemen and Lambert Bemelman were two FAP sculptors whose art was done in or for the Florida Keys. Bemelman's work can be seen at Hurricane Memorial at Mile Marker 81.5.
Not depicted are additional FAP work on the Hurricane Memorial by other FAP artists. John Klinkenberg did the bronze plaque installed just below the bas relief. Ceramist Adela Gisbet did the ceramic tiles for the cover of the crypt. General designers were Allie Mae Kitchens and Emigdio Reyes. To read about the Hurricane Memorial click HERE.
(Click to enlarge images)
Another of Children at Play that I call boxing. This one is in the Islamorada Library and the Plantation Key Courthouse.
Still another Children at Play that I call football. Regardless of the colors they appear here, all are an aged version of an off-white casting plaster.
This piece in the Islamorada Library appears to be a non-standard size - smaller and almost square. Note the theme is less playful. I call this one the globe.
An unretouched photo of the van Breemen Children at Play in a narrow hallway of the Monroe County Health Department (old school house) in Tavernier, Florida. Photo with a Olympus 2020Z digital with built in flash October 31, 2000.
- The end -
To read about the Hurricane Memorial click HERE.
Return to the Artist's Room, or
Return to Cybermuseum, or
Arthur Emptage, national executive secretary for the American Artists’ Congress, sent this statement to an investigator working for the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on the Works Progress Administration in 1939. He gave full-throated support to the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA): “It is . . . the considered judgment of this organization of artists that the achievements of the Federal Art Project are so many and so varied, so valuable an [sic] so full of promise for the future life of this nation that it merits the complete support of every American.” The American Artists’ Congress formed in 1936 and adopted bylaws calling for “solidarity among artists, permanent government financing for art, support for freedom of expression, and opposition to the war.” Its support of the FAP dovetailed with its activism.
As a high-profile component of the WPA, cultural projects like the FAP were an easy target for critics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. In July 1938, Chairman Martin Dies, Jr., of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities announced an investigation into two WPA cultural programs: the Federal Writers’ and Theatre Projects. Dies fanned suspicions among the public and Congress that communists controlled the employment decisions for FAP. Many FAP artists depicted the working class and those on the margins of society, which investigators saw as confirmation of communist sympathies.
On March 27, 1939, the Committee on Appropriations also began investigating the WPA, establishing a special subcommittee led by Appropriations Chairman Edward Taylor. House Resolution 130 authorized the Committee on Appropriations to “conduct a thorough investigation and study of the Works Progress Administration and the administration of the laws, regulations, and orders administered by it.” FAP was scrutinized, along with other initiatives to provide relief to artists, actors, musicians, and writers, and bring American art into the daily lives of citizens.
After conducting hearings and gathering evidence from across the country, the Appropriations Committee concluded that its investigation, combined with the passage of the Emergency Relief Act of 1939, had remedied some of the administrative issues at the WPA. However, it did not recommend that the WPA (then renamed the Work Projects Administration) be made a permanent relief program. Facing congressional pressure and budget cuts, the WPA, including all remaining FAP projects, was dissolved in 1943.
How the New Deal’s federal arts programs created a new American history
Nina Silber has been a member of the faculty at Boston University since 1990, where her teaching and research have focused on issues related to the Civil War, gender, and historical memory. The recipient of numerous awards – including fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Harvard University’s Warren Center – Professor Silber has also published several books including The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (1993) Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992) Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (2005) and Gender and the Sectional Conflict (2008). Her most recent book, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, looks at issues raised in this essay, especially how the Civil War became a point of political contention in the years of the Great Depression and New Deal.
Tensions have been brewing at George Washington High School in San Francisco over a series of murals that tell a less than heroic story about America’s first president. Completed in 1936 by a left-wing immigrant painter, Victor Arnautoff, the murals have prompted discomfort among students and parents. Their objections focus not on the mural’s critique of Washington but on its inclusion of a dead Native American and African American slaves. Although Arnautoff apparently intended to expose Washington’s racist practices – his ownership of slaves, his role in killing Native people – the mural also shows people of color in positions associated with servitude and violence. Given that, it’s not hard to imagine the uneasiness students of color might feel as they walk, everyday, past these paintings. A committee recently recommended painting over the offending frescoes.
Members of the George Washington High School community should have the ultimate say in the types of images chosen to represent their school. But there’s also a backstory to these murals – and other art works like it – that could easily be obscured in this discussion. A recent New York Times article puts the San Francisco dispute in the context of the many controversies currently swirling over “historical representations in public art”, including protests about “Confederate statues and monuments” that have recently “been dismantled”. While it’s true that Confederate monuments were placed in public spaces – like city parks and courthouse squares – and so might be considered a type of “public art”, the George Washington High School murals are a different order of “public art” altogether. Both were placed in public spaces but only one took shape as a result of public funding.
The San Francisco murals sprang from a broad government-funded arts initiative, part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which made possible the creation of thousands of art projects around the United States in the 1930s. Part of the Works Progress Administration, these arts initiatives included numerous dramatic performances organized by the Federal Theatre Project countless posters and murals created by the Federal Art Project and the mammoth American Guide series as well as oral histories of black and white Americans done under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project. Significantly, these projects offered employment to artists, writers, dramatists, and musicians hit hard by the economic circumstances of the Great Depression.
In contrast, the money behind Confederate monuments and statues came almost exclusively from white private organizations, societies like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who called on wealthy donors and used their political connections to get monuments placed in public settings. With Jim Crow measures effectively silencing black Americans in the political arena – and so preventing them from raising objections to the placement of these statues – tributes to the Confederacy appeared in prominent public spaces in towns and cities across the South in the first half of the twentieth century.
The New Deal arts programs – including the program that sponsored Victor Arnautoff’s San Francisco murals – represented a singular response to the kind of “public art” initiatives that celebrated the Confederacy. Writers, actors, and artists who lacked the economic clout of the UDC received government funding and were able to keep their art in the public eye. As a result, a diverse array of artistic approaches and interpretations circulated, including work produced by left-wing muralists like Arnautoff and African American writers like Richard Wright and Sterling Brown. The WPA even supported a “Negro Theatre Project” that was established in twenty-three cities across the US. Because of the New Deal’s commitment to fund artists without extensive resources, it was possible to create, even for a short period of time, a more racially, ethnically, and politically diverse conversation. Indeed, the New Deal’s commitment to the arts made it possible, for the first time since the Civil War, for a richer and more democratic conversation about the American past to unfold in public settings. This should signal to us how vastly different the WPA’s version of “public art” was from the “public art” sponsored by Confederate apologists.
None of this means that New Deal art followed a modern-day standard for “political correctness” or that these works were without historical distortions. These programs did, however, allow for a more inclusive narrative. Consider, for example, that within a three-month period in 1936, two plays telling vastly different stories about the Civil War era appeared under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project. One, Jefferson Davis, made its New York premiere in February 1936. With a UDC-approved script, this federally funded play upheld the Confederacy’s right to secede not over slavery but so the South “may decide the question for ourselves as the constitution promises we may”. The other play, Battle Hymn, opened in New York in May, and told of John Brown’s antislavery campaign in Kansas and Harper’s Ferry. Written by two left-wing dramatists, Michael Blankfort and Mike Gold, Battle Hymn sympathetically portrayed Brown as a reluctant insurrectionist, ultimately compelled to use violence because of his abhorrence of slavery. In his review, the theater critic for the New York Post explained: “I’d rather miss any show in New York than this one.”
In 1939 the newly created House Un-American Activities Committee cut the cord on the Federal Theater Project. HUAC members objected, most of all, to the left-wing leanings of WPA artists and writers. Ironically, they judged the work of dramatists like Blankfort and Gold “un-American” while a play honoring the Confederacy’s four-years-long military effort to break up the United States never even popped up on HUAC’s radar. The Federal Art Project continued through 1943, giving artists a few extra years to create murals and sculptures for schools, post offices, and government buildings, including a mural by William Scott, installed in the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, DC that shows Frederick Douglass urging Lincoln and his cabinet members to enlist black men in the Union army. Even after the Art Project folded, many of these more permanent forms of art – including Scott’s mural as well as Victor Arnautoff’s frescoes – remained in place. While Arnautoff’s murals have little to say about the Civil War – they focus, of course, on the school’s namesake – they nonetheless challenged a well-established pro-Confederate history that had a strong hold in the public arena.
Like other New Deal initiatives, those murals push back against a history that papered over racist atrocities, whether it was the first president’s betrayal of Native Americans, or the brutal injustices practiced by slaveholders – from George Washington to Jefferson Davis - in the pursuit of economic and political gain. Without government funding, it would have been almost impossible for this alternative narrative to gain much of a foothold in the public imagination.
Audrey McMahon & the Federal Art Project in New York
A little-known hero of the Federal Art Project is Audrey McMahon. A native New Yorker, she was the program’s regional director for New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia and was a former director of the College Art Association (her 1932 CAA program, which gave aid to artists, was absorbed by the government in 1935). To provide impetus for experimentation and to encourage emerging artists, she ordered the construction of a printmaking workshop in New York City under the auspices of the Federal Art Project. In 1936, McMahon was responsible for more than a third of those employed by the organization nationally, many of whom had their introduction to printmaking through it, and would later become world-famous artists, including Will Barnet, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Isamu Noguchi, Jackson Pollock, and Raphael Soyer (artists earned on average less than $30 a week).
Gyula Zilzer, The Etching Printer, etching with drypoint, 1937. Sold September 19, 2006 for $2,400.
By January of 1937 the Federal Art Project workshop, under McMahon’s direction, had created enough prints to mount an exhibition, titled Prints for the People. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia attended the opening. Further exhibitions followed after this initial success, each more ambitious than the last. Though usually pulled in editions of 25 (and no higher than 75), Federal Art Project prints could be obtained by federally funded organizations like museums “on the basis of a 99 year loan.” WPA prints had labels affixed, identifying them as government property (California and New York’s labels differed from the standard issued by the WPA) and are still regarded as such. A portion of each of the small editions was reserved for the artist to keep, and most have likely made it to the market.
Jackson Pollock, Farm Workers, lithograph, circa 1934-35. Sold November 9, 2009 for $13,200.
Federal Art Project printmakers enjoyed freedom not given to others employed by the organization, like muralists, whose works needed to be readily accepted by the general public. As a result, prints made during this time were not always the representational heroic narratives of American Scene art, but often showed more artistic freedom in subject and technique. The Social Realists of the organization politicized their images of the stark reality of urban life (including the breadlines intimated by Sloan), while Modernists tended towards abstraction, which at the time was not fully embraced by the American public. The Federal Art Project in particular boasted a diverse roster of artists from a range of ethnicities, skill levels, ages, genders and backgrounds. The dynamic atmosphere fostered experimentation and had a lasting impact on the younger generation of artists, some of whom would become leading figures among the Abstract Expressionists. The organization ensured not only the livelihood of these artists, but also professional recognition. Louise Nevelson and Alice Neel first received public attention while working for the Federal Art Project, and African-American printmakers included such significant figures as Hale Woodruff in Atlanta, Hughie Lee-Smith in Cleveland and Dox Thrash in Philadelphia.
Samuel J. Brown, Abstract, lithograph, circa 1930s. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000. In the forthcoming African-American Fine Art auction.
A Visual History of Federal Art Spending in the United States
Hugh Mesibov, “Homeless” (1938), Carborundum print on ivory wove paper, 5 3/8 x 10 3/8 in., John S. Phillips Fund, 1987.11.1, , Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
PHILADELPHIA — Art for Society’s Sake: The WPA and Its Legacy, on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) through April 6th, recalls an era in this country when the dissemination of art was a governmental duty, with the arts substantially funded on the federal level. While the works on display, all from the permanent collection, have no shortage of power or merit, this exhibition is thematically less about the art itself and more about what the mere existence of this art means.
Part of Roosevelt’s New Deal under the Federal Art Project, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) were dedicated to employing artists and fostering the creation of art all over the country — largely in the form of city murals, but also through painting and sculpture. At its height, the WPA and PWAP employed over 5,000 artists, all of whom were able to create artworks with some measure of autonomy. The WPA served not only to employ artists and artisans during the Great Depression, it also had the aim and effect of beautifying the country through public art, fostering the development of artists in the US, and promoting the arts in all levels of society.
While the WPA was ended in 1943, it is important to note that even during the struggles of the Great Depression it was a priority of the United States government to value art. It is quite telling that this exhibition is on display at a time when the country is in a crushing recession and art is considered largely unimportant at the federal level. While the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is responsible for handling out millions of dollars in in grants to nonprofit arts organizations in the United States every year, its purview is far from being as revolutionary or as far-reaching as that of the WPA. While the annual NEA budget over the last 20 years averaged $127 million, the WPA had a 1935 budget of $1.4 billion dollars per year — around 6.7 percent of GDP at that time — dedicated primarily to public projects but also to employing artists in many capacities and commissioning large-scale works. (From 1935 to 1943, the WPA spent $13.4 billion, an estimated five percent of which went to art-related work.)
Hugh Mesibov, “Smoke n’ Gin” (1938), Color carborundum print on cream wove paper, 9 15/16 x 7 15/16 in., Gift of the artist, 1987.14, Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Art for Society’s Sake displays a truly diverse range of artists from both the time of the WPA and afterwards, showing a wide range of artistic styles that reflected, to some degree, the struggles and lives of Americans of all backgrounds. The WPA-era works span many artistic movements and cover a wide range of subjects, from portraiture, to nature scenes, to cityscapes, to works of the Social Realist movement, which concerned itself with the plight of workers and the greed of the wealthy, to deeply affecting artworks addressing the grim racial realities of the 1930s and 1940s in this country. While there was some fear of censorship and blacklisting due to perceived Communist alignments or sympathies, as noted by Jackson Pollock and his brothers, who worked in the WPA, on the whole, the artists represented in this exhibit manage to engage with sensitive subjects such as racial and class struggles.
The relative freedom of expression allowed during this time led to the diverse range of works on display in the PAFA exhibition, organized simply but effectively in chronological order from right to left around the large room dedicated to the show. When the WPA ended and the NEA later rose to fill some of the gaps, the type of art being supported changed in style and tone, beginning to focus on overtly political race- and gender-based issues. Blurbs throughout the exhibition reiterate the importance of the WPA at the community level — how WPA funds gave people all over the country access to art education, be it in painting, sculpture, printmaking, and/or other art forms. The show keenly highlights Philadelphia’s unique role in the dissemination of art throughout the region through its then-fledgling print and lithograph communities.
Romare Bearden, “Three Women” (1979), Color lithograph on paper, ed. 3/25, 20 3/16 x 15 in., The Harold A. and Ann R. Sorgenti Collection of Contemporary African-American Art, 2004.20.5, Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Highlights of the show include vivid black-and-white works by Hugh Mesibov. “Homeless,” a 1938 print, is a powerful depiction of some of those most neglected by society, created in smoky fleeting lines. “Subway Express,” a 1938 lithograph, is a chaotic swirl of movement, punctuated with rough, expressionistic lines. Also by Mesibov is “Smoke and Gin,” a 1938 print of a working-class man, worn ragged from labor, sitting at a table with a drink. Also visually arresting is Romare Bearden’s “Three Women,” a Matisse-esque 1979 lithograph of three African-American women, dressed in brightly-colored clothing, whose affection towards one another is palpable and charming.
The last quarter or so of the show is dedicated to works that post-date the WPA, describing the role of the NEA and displaying several works that came about through NEA funds. (It’s worth noting that except for individual fellowships in literature, the NEA has not awarded individual fellowships since 1996.) The final wall of the exhibit is dedicated to some of the better-known artists who have benefited from the NEA’s largesse, but it is clear that, the existence of the NEA notwithstanding, it has become less of a priority in the United States to support the visual arts than it was during the Great Depression.
Hugh Mesibov, “Subway Express” (1938), Lithograph on ivory wove paper, 11 x 14 in., 1987.11.2, Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
What then of the United States’ legacy as a cradle for artistic production? NEA spending on the arts is dramatically less, either in total or per capita, compared to that of most of the countries in Western Europe, with no sign of increase in sight. Indeed, the NEA’s small budget has been highly contested by those in government who would defund it entirely. In 2011, Rep. Jim Jordan and the Republican Study Committee proposed cutting the NEA’s budget entirely in the 1990s, the NEA was again targeted by conservative Republicans who found its purpose to be a waste of money.
In 2013, the NEA spent $138.4 million. In contrast, Germany spent about $1.63 billion, while France gave its Ministry of Culture a budget of around $10 billion. While the latter two countries demonstrate increased spending each year, the United States budget has has declined since its 1992 peak of $175 million dollars. For per capita reference, as of 2014, the United States had a population of 318,892,103, while Germany and France have 80,996,685 and 66,259,012 respectively. Even Northern Ireland, with its population of 1.8 million, spends roughly $21 million dollars on the arts, while Sweden spends $15 million dollars on the arts for its 9 million citizens.
While the WPA was not a perfect bastion of artistic freedom and expression, Art for Society’s Sake provides a paradigm for what greater federal economic support for the arts could look like. This exhibition is therefore about the power and impact of art, and a strong argument for what can and should be done to support it.
Art for Society’s Sake: The WPA and Its Legacy continues at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Annenberg Gallery, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, 118 N Broad Street, Philadelphia) until April 6th.
Correction, 3/18: NEA historical budget levels have been revised, as well as an inaccurate reference to the NEA as an individual project-based organization. The NEA, with the exception of grants in literature, has only issued grants to organizations since 1996.
Many people were opposed to government involvement in the arts. They feared that government funding and influence would lead to censorship and a violation of freedom of speech. Members of the House Un-American Activities Committee believed the program to be infiltrated by communists. 
However, with support from Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt signed the executive order to create this project because the government wanted to support, as Fortune magazine stated, “the kind of raw cultural material--the raw material of new creative work-- which is so necessary to artists and particularly to artists in a new country”. 
As previously mentioned, at its peak Federal One employed 40,000 writers, musicians, artists and actors and the Federal Writers' project had around 6,500 people on the WPA payroll.  Many people benefitted from these programs and some FWP writers became famous, such as John Steinbeck and Zora Neale Hurston.  These writers were considered to be federal writers.  Furthermore, these projects also published books such as New York Panorama and the WPA Guide to New York City.