Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Imagine that you had spent your youth training for the theater only to discover that theaters were closing for lack of a paying audience, and that you had no opportunities to perform. Or consider yourself as a mid-career book illustrator discovering that your publisher, along with many others, was going out of business and you were now without employment or prospects, with a family to support. Or you might be an elderly painter who has an ongoing relationship with a patron. One day you receive notice that there will no longer be commissions coming your way because your patron can no longer afford to buy your work. Anticipating partial retirement based on this relationship, you are now faced with growing old and having to find employment.
As an actor, illustrator, or painter you are probably communicating your frustrations, fears, and anxieties to other artists finding themselves in a similar predicament. Angry that there seems to be no relief in sight from public or private sources, some of your colleagues, in desperation, are going on hunger strikes to bring public attention to their plight. Many are marching with thousands of others on city streets demanding some form of relief.
What you are imagining was very real to artists in the United States shortly after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. It would be four very bleak and lean years before the government would recognize the artists’ economic predicament and begin to initiate relief efforts. Even then relief would be intermittent and many musicians, actors, painters, dancers, and the like would disappear from the art world altogether. This cost to the creative life of the United States is incalculable. The relief that was received by artists was inconsistent and under constant threat of discontinuation. Despite these adverse circumstances, during this period artists would do some of the best work of their careers.
The story of art during the Great Depression is very much tied to federal relief efforts. During this period government support for the arts in America was at unprecedented levels never again equaled. Millions of children, youth, and adults in the United States were able to attend free or very inexpensive art classes, theater, symphony, opera, and other forms of art. Numerous publications documenting the cultural life of the nation were produced.
The purpose of this chapter will be to provide the details associated with these relief efforts, some of the people associated with them, and the ramifications for art and culture in the United States during and after the Depression. In doing so, questions like the following will be explored: What characterized the arts and art-making in the United States just prior to the Depression? In what ways did the federal government provide support to artists, and how did this influence art making and public access to the arts? What were some of the controversies surrounding federal relief efforts for artists? What are some examples of art and cultural development in the United States that were influenced by the Depression, but which did not receive public funding? Who were some of the key artists and arts administrators during the Depression? In what way is contemporary public support for the arts influenced by public support for the arts during the Depression?
Art and Artists in the United States, 1929-1945
In the year prior to the stock market crash in 1929 there was a boom in the American art market corresponding to a boom in the American economy. However, it is important to recognize that this boom in no way indicates that American artists prior to the Great Depression enjoyed a comfortable and predictable living from their artistry. Many actors, stage-hands, musicians and others associated with live theater, for example, were already out of work because of the mass popularity of motion pictures. Many American artists supplemented their incomes from art with other jobs. In addition, a report commissioned by President Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933) in 1929 concluded that for most Americans there was not much interest in noncommercial forms of art.
As a consequence of American indifference and of art being a fragile source of income, artists were in dire straits shortly after the onset of the Depression. Records kept at the time show a drastic decline in the number of artists and art teachers in the 1930s. By mid-May 1932, 210 of the 253 theaters in the New York City region had closed.
To bring attention to their plight, artists began to organize hunger marches and outdoor sales of artwork. The first groups to respond were private charities that began to offer welfare payments to artists in New York City as part of aid packages for “white collar” workers. Another early relief effort was the Wicks Act of 1931, passed by the New York legislature. This act established the New York State Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Harry L. Hopkins, as head of the New York agency, supervised the organization of relief work for unemployed artists. This administration employed one hundred artists. Hopkins became a close advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (served 1933-1945). Roosevelt later appointed Hopkins as head of the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, both of which would greatly impact the artists and arts of the Depression.
Federal Government Support for Artists and Art (1933-1945)
Four years after the stock market crash of 1929, and in the first year of President Roosevelt’s administration, there was a federal response to the lack of jobs for the unemployed, including artists. During the first one hundred days of his administration, from March to June 1933, Roosevelt pushed through Congress an amazing amount of legislation designed to bring economic relief to those affected by the Great Depression. This period would mark the beginning of the New Deal. In November 1933 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6420-B, establishing the Civil Works Administration (CWA). The CWA initiated public work projects to employ workers from relief lists and from the ranks of the unemployed. They received minimum wages rather than relief payments. Because of the untiring efforts by advocates of the arts, “artist” was one of about one hundred professional job classifications receiving funding. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was founded in December 1933 under a CWA grant. One million dollars was committed to PWAP. More than 3,600 artists participating in PWAP worked on the decoration of public buildings. Administrators of the program were inspired by Mexican muralist painters such as Diego Rivera, Jose Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, who were including social and political themes in their paintings in Mexico. As a consequence PWAP artists were expected to produce works that represented the American scene on public buildings as opposed to nonrepresentational or abstract murals. PWAP was the first federal art project sponsored by the federal government on a national scale.
Another program to assist artists existed under the U.S. Treasury Department, which was involved in providing relief to artists through the Section of Painting and Sculpture. Initiated in 1934, the Treasury Section of Fine Arts program ran until 1943. It concentrated on the acquisition (gathering) of paintings and sculpture for public buildings. Notable artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Rockwell Kent advised Treasury Department officials on purchases. Officials believed that these efforts were in keeping with past state support of the arts.
The Treasury Relief Art Project was initiated in 1935 and ran until 1939. This project employed 440 artists from the unemployment register. Rather than an acquisition project, artists were employed to decorate post offices and other small public buildings.
Among the larger programs established to aid artists was Federal One. Established in 1935 Federal One was a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the name for a group of agencies established by President Roosevelt to provide jobs for those who were able to work but unable to find employment on their own. Federal One specifically provided relief to visual artists, actors, musicians, composers, dancers, writers, and other people engaged in creating the arts. Its mission was to popularize the creation and appreciation of American art. Administrators hoped to produce art that would demonstrate the unique character of the United States and its citizens. Administrators tended to believe that this was best accomplished through art that documented everyday life through realistic depictions.
Federal One was also motivated by the Roosevelt administration’s belief that art could serve in support of President Roosevelt’s public policies. Solidifying the nation’s citizens in the face of economic hardship with art forms associated with the culture of the day was considered important to the everyday life of the nation. Significant to this vision was the belief that one could exercise his or her citizenship through making or appreciating art. In addition, the administration’s populist orientation to art—the belief that art was intended to benefit the common people, not just the wealthy or educated—promoted artists as important workers making valuable contributions to national well-being.
Federal One consisted of five levels of administration overseeing five projects: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the Historical Records Survey. Holger Cahill was the national director working out of Washington, DC. Directly beneath him were field advisors who communicated with Cahill about Federal One operations. The nation was divided into 42 units, many based on state boundaries, all of which had appointed directors. Units were divided into districts with each having a supervisor. Local advisory committees advised district supervisors.
Federal One recognized four categories of artists. Those artists considered to be highly skilled and creative were identified as professional and technical workers able to supervise less skilled artists. Below this top category were skilled artists, intermediate grade artists, and the unskilled. Unskilled workers were employed as gallery attendants, messengers, and other support staff. There was recognition by some that artist labor differed from other types of labor. Artists resisted rigid schedules and fixed times. This was a contentious issue throughout the course of Federal One.
The WPA and Federal One were terminated by an act of Congress in 1943 for both political and economic reasons. Politically there were some that believed that the WPA, particularly Federal One, was a waste of resources. Others believed that private enterprise, and not the federal government, should provide what the WPA was set up to do. Some associated poverty with laziness and believed that those in need should not receive any type of public relief.
In the years before its termination, budgets were often cut and projects curtailed. Layoffs were common and encouraged Federal One workers to strike and demonstrate on behalf of the projects. This in turn enraged the opposition, which already believed that communists opposed to America’s free market economy had infiltrated the WPA. This opinion was fueled by the social and political content of the work by many Federal One artists that advocated for worker and human rights.
In the years prior to and during the Depression, the union movement and communism became inextricably linked in the United States. When some of the major labor organizations were beginning to form, such as the Committee for Industrial Organizations (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO), the leaders of these labor organizations recognized that they needed to enlist the help of those with great leadership and organization abilities. In many cases, these leaders were communists and socialists, and their most common plan of action for unions to take was the strike. From that point on, the people of 1930s America associated the strike with communist beliefs and activities. Communism was seen as un-American and against the status quo, with such activities as striking upsetting the balance of power within a traditionally capitalist marketplace. Americans valued the free marketplace and saw communism as a threat to that tradition. Communism was also frequently the target of politicians who blamed the Great Depression on the “rise of communism” within the United States, which understandably led many Americans to develop an anti-communist attitude.
The United States economy was improving in the early 1940s in response to World War II (1938-1945) in Europe. This improved economy, coupled with the hostility held by some towards the WPA and Federal One, contributed to its demise.
Another large government program for artists was the Federal Art Project (FAP), which was divided into multiple divisions based either on media or around specific projects. One division was responsible for employing artists to create murals for public spaces such as hospitals and schools. The Painting Division employed artists to do easel paintings that illustrated aspects of American life. The Graphic Arts Division funded the creation of prints with much the same themes, as well as photographs that documented the WPA. Other artists were hired to produce sculpture, again primarily with American life themes. The Scenic Design Division produced models of historic buildings for architectural and educational purposes. Other divisions produced posters and stained glass. The Index of American Design employed artists to comprehensively document American folk art and antiques. Much of this documentation was exhibited in department stores around the United States. The Arts Service Division produced posters, handbills, and book illustrations. The Exhibitions Division was responsible for exhibiting the work of WPA artists.
The FAP also included an Art Teaching Division. Teachers worked in a variety of settings including hospitals, mental health facilities, settlement houses, and community arts centers educating the public about art. One hundred art centers were established in 22 states. A typical art center included an exhibition space and classrooms.
The mission of the community art centers was very much in keeping with the general mission of the WPA. Community art centers were viewed as a vehicle for bringing citizens’ attention to art originating in the United States in contrast to contemporary or historical European artists. Community art centers also developed programs that would encourage connections between art and artists with the general public. This was part of an attempt to realize an authentic popular and mass art culture in contrast to the culture encouraged by the entertainment industries. The philosophical foundation of this approach to community arts was known as cultural democracy. WPA administrators believed that a culturally democratic orientation was in keeping with an American democracy in which people should have the right to contemporary cultural expression, as well as their cultural past. Such an orientation seemed very important to a country like the United States, with a citizenry claiming cultural roots from all parts of the world. Americans, a newly blended people, needed new cultural expressions in addition to ties to past ethnic artistry.
In 1997 the National Archives and Records Administration put together an exhibit of works created under the FAP. Exhibit curators discovered five themes that FAP artists addressed. These themes included rediscovering America, celebrating the people, work pays America, activist arts, and useful arts. Visitors to the exhibition saw an extensive collection of paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, posters, and photographs that in combination tell a story of what life was like during the Depression and the significant ways in which artists contributed to national well-being at a time of social upheaval. Photographs documented artists at work, as well as the rural and urban landscape. Painting and sculpture provided glimpses into the domestic and work lives of Americans. Posters and handbills for theater productions were on display. Exhibited were examples from all visual art forms that communicated attitudes about the ways in which America should change in order to be more responsive to the working class and minority groups.
The Federal Music Project (FMP) provided relief and programs in ways similar to Federal Art Project. Directed by Nikolai Sokoloff, a former conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, the FMP employed musicians who participated in orchestras, chamber music groups, choral groups, opera, military bands, dance bands, and in theaters. At one point musicians were participating in five thousand performances before three million people a week. Performances took place in cooperation with local sponsors such as schools, colleges, or community groups. The FMP also coordinated music education programs in rural areas and urban neighborhoods. In 1939 it is estimated that 132,000 children, youth, and adults in 27 states received music education. Composers also benefited through FMP’s Composers Forum Laboratory. The Forum sponsored performances of contemporary compositions. The FMP also included a project dedicated to documenting works by American composers. Works documented were performed. FMP employees also recorded American folk music.
Concentrating specifically on theater, the Federal Theater Project (FTP) was directed by Hallie Flanagan. Consisting of 31 state units and New York City, one thousand performances before one million people were given each month. Admission to productions was often free, meaning that for many this was their first exposure to live theater.
The FTP stimulated theater in the United States. The project produced more than 1,200 plays introducing the work of one hundred new playwrights. The FTP also broadcast “Federal Theater of the Air” to an estimated 10 million radio listeners. To insure quality, the FTP published The Federal Theatre Magazine, containing reviews of FTP plays produced across the United States.
FTP-supported theater represented social issues; educational or informative works; new plays and musicals; plays never before presented in the United States, as well as standard classics; children’s theater; and those works with significance to specific cultures, languages, or heritages. FTP additionally supported vaudeville, variety, circuses, marionette and puppet troupes, experimental theater, operas, and dance troupes.
Because the FTP was a relief effort, productions with large casts and extensive technical needs were favored in an attempt to put as many people as possible to work. Production budgets favored personnel costs and skimped on production materials. The FTP productions included many people who would later become significant in performing arts history. For example, noted actor and filmmaker Orson Welles directed Macbeth for the Negro People’s Theater. Welles also directed Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock. Within the history of American theater this musical is famous not only for its open support for American labor, but also for the circumstances of its premier. On the day “Cradle Will Rock” was scheduled to open, funding was canceled and the theater padlocked. The government’s reaction was a result of the subject matter of the musical, which leaned toward left wing (socialist or communist) and unionist beliefs. Despite the injunction against them, actors and audience walked to a new theater. Because the actors and musicians union would not allow members to perform on the stage of the new theater, the actors and musicians performed from their seats in the audience, to great acclaim.
Operating without the fanfare of the FTP, the Federal Writers Project (FWP) was directed by Henry Alsberg until 1939. The FWP employed up to 6,686 writers working on projects in 48 states and the District of Columbia. By the conclusion of 1941 the FWP had produced 3.5 million copies of eight hundred titles.
The best-known books published by the FWP are associated with the American Guide Series. This series was planned to include illustrated guidebooks for every U.S. state and territory. Guides included maps, information on municipalities, natural features, and tourist attractions, as well as essays on history, folklore, politics, and local culture. Numerous city guides and local pamphlets were also published. Employees of the FWP completed studies of American natural and cultural history for children, youth, and adults. This included the compilation of archives of slave narratives and folklore.
The Historical Records Survey (HRS) was also a part of the FWP. The mission of the HRS was to inventory all county records in the United States in an effort to aid historians, government officials, and researchers. Field workers were employed to survey manuscripts and records associated with county offices, churches, women’s organizations, vital statistics, federal archives, Civil Works Administration papers, and education.
Agriculture Department—Resettlement Administration
The U.S. Agriculture Department, through its Resettlement Administration (RA), later the Farm Security Administration (FSA), was founded as a relief agency to provide such services as low-interest loans to farmers and reeducation for those from the cities who were being resettled on communal farms. One of the sections of the RA was the Historical Section, which was responsible for the compilation of historical information. In order to compile the historical information, the RA hired photographers to document life, primarily rural life, in the United States between 1932 and 1945. Under the direction of Roy Stryker, photographers produced 66,000 black and white photographic prints, 122,000 black and white negatives, and 650 color transparencies. Numerous documentary films were also produced as a result of the project. Notable contributors to this comprehensive project included Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, and Marion Post Wolcott.
The RA also sought to document the folk music of the rural United States for eventual use by recreational leaders in new farming communities. Between 1936 and 1937, a section of the RA called the Special Skills Division was responsible for this task. Its workers traveled to the eastern and midwestern United States and recorded folk music in various languages, including Lithuanian, Swedish, Serbian, and Gaelic, as well as numerous songs from the Ozarks and Appalachians. Sidney Robertson, Margaret Valiant, and others, under the supervision of Charles Seeger, were responsible for the recording efforts. In total, 159 records were produced. The RA also distributed illustrated song sheets throughout rural communities based on these recordings.
Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and Propaganda
There were other forces at work in American society during the Depression that were not compatible with those promoting the arts and culture within an unstable economy. Not everyone regarded the bringing together of artists as a cultural and political force as a positive development. Those same individuals and groups who were not sympathetic to organized labor also saw organized artists as a threat to American values. Organized labor was often paired in the minds of some with communism and social revolution, such as talk of overthrowing the United States government. This was true to such an extent that in 1938 members of the U.S. House of Representatives felt enough public support to create a committee to investigate threats to national security and potential subversion by United States citizens. The committee was named the Special Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities and Propaganda in the United States. It later became the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), famous for the investigation of Hollywood’s film-making community. Known more commonly as the Dies Committee because Congressman Martin Dies of Texas chaired it, this committee began to immediately investigate Federal One for any subversive activities. The FTP was an early target. Dies pressed for government to ban the Communist Party, require all public employees to sign loyalty pledges, fire those who did not, and prohibit government interaction with labor unions. Dies believed communists controlled organized labor in general. Dies greatly disliked the New Dealers, including the head of the WPA Harry Hopkins, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes, and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. Roosevelt personally opposed the idea of loyalty oaths. However, there was so much public fear of the spread of communism and fascism that the New Dealers of the Roosevelt administration were restrained in responding to the committee’s charges. In addition, Congress’ disdain for labor unions made organization by the actors and FTP workers unattractive as an effective response to save federal arts programs.
The Dies Committee had a profound effect on the arts in general, and the Federal Theater Project specifically. The FTP was shut down in 1939 in partial response to unsubstantiated claims of subversion. When the FTP ended on June 30, 1939, actors publicly expressed indignation through their performances. The endings to some plays were changed that night. In one case in New York City, stagehands knocked down the set in view of the audience at the conclusion of the performance. The FTP equipment that had accumulated over four years since 1935 were locked up in government warehouses. Many of the FTP actors and workers found jobs in commercial or community theaters. Eventually the social and cultural forces associated with this fear within the American public would contribute to the shuttering of the WPA and all of those projects associated with it.
Art Outside of Federal Relief Programs
Not all of the creative activity taking place during the Depression occurred as a result of federal relief. Budgets for the projects were not so large that all those in need could receive benefits. In addition, some artists were able to earn a living through association with patrons or teaching institutions. Examples of private projects from this period indicate the extent of creative activity and entrepreneurship that occurred beyond the involvement of the federal government. They demonstrate a connection with the American values, attitudes, and beliefs associated with the depressed economy and the federal response to it.
By 1932 commercial architects in the United States were being influenced by European Modernism or the International Style. The “towering” city cores that we associate with contemporary American urban areas are largely a result of this period. Both the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building in New York City show the influence of this style. In this regard, American architects working in the International Style should be seen in contrast to those many other visual and performing artists of the period who were looking into America for themes that would help to unite the public during economic hardship. Two well-known architectural projects associated with the Depression years do exemplify an architectural response to the stress on the nation—Rockefeller Center and Broadacre City. One of these projects is commercial and the other domestic. One was fully realized, while the other exists primarily in the form of architectural models and writings.
Rockefeller Center is the largest private building project ever initiated in the United States. Located on three city blocks in midtown Manhattan, the Center includes fourteen original slab skyscrapers intended to house the then-new network broadcasting industry. Unique to the design was a community-oriented plan for multiuse facilities. Rockefeller Center integrates commercial business with restaurants and shops on multiple levels above and below the street. The center also includes gardens and an ice skating rink. It is its multiple use design and attention to outdoor space and community that speaks to its partnership with those other arts projects of the era that were created to bring people together.
Associated with Rockefeller Center is one of the most infamous examples of the conflict that can develop between artists and their patrons. The conflict also demonstrates the tensions that existed during the Depression between a troubled capitalist economy and socialist responses.
Diego Rivera was very well known internationally for the murals he created in Mexico celebrating his cultural heritage and communist ideals. In 1932 John D. Rockefeller commissioned Rivera to paint a mural for the lobby of the main building in Rockefeller Center. Proposed was a mural of workers and their encounters with industry, science, socialism, and capitalism. Rivera inserted into the mural an unapproved portrait of Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s communist leader. Building managers ordered Rivera to remove the portrait because of its anti-capitalist intent. Rivera refused. Demonstrations in support of Rivera began and there was an attempt to transfer the mural to the Museum of Modern Art. On February 10, 1934, however, Rockefeller Center workers destroyed the mural with axes.
In contrast to the controversy connected to the Rockefeller Center, Broadacre City was an unrealized ideal that had the support of President Roosevelt and others. Beginning in the early 1930s architect Frank Lloyd Wright began to promote a utopian response to what he saw as the urbanization of America. He referred to his idea as Broadacre City.
The Broadacre City plan was based on a view of urban living as inhospitable and uninhabitable. This view was shared by President Roosevelt and his advisor, Rexford Tugwell. Both thought of cities as rather hopeless. Roosevelt desired, if it were at all possible, to devise a way that would move everyone to the country or at least to suburban environments. Broadacre City was envisioned as located away from large metropolitan areas and containing values associated with democracy and community. The plan for Broadacre City took into consideration the automobile, communications systems, and power. Nature was revered within the plan, and the design was envisioned as cooperating with nature. Life in Broadacre City was to center on nature rather than the many technological distractions associated with cities. Integral to Broadacre City was the “Usonian” house. Usonia is an acronym that stands for “United States of North America” with the letter “i” included between the “n” and the “a” to make it a more pleasant sounding word. Adapted from Wright’s prairie style homes, Usonian houses featured an attention to good design, nature, and spaciousness. Usonian houses were also designed to be affordable to middle-class families.
A model of Broadacre City was built and toured the United States. It was included in an exhibit at Rockefeller Center. Broadacre city was never built, and indeed Wright never intended it to be built. It was conceived as a model for suburban living and, in many ways, it succeeded in setting forth a blueprint for communities to come. Broadacre City featured architectural strategies such as underground power, highway overpasses, low-level lighting, and landscaping that are now taken for granted. Usonian homes were built, but never on the scale suggested by Broadacre City.
Folk and Domestic Art
Some artists working during the Depression were not associated with any type of professional art world or related institutions, like museums and galleries. For example, Bill Traylor, a sharecropper and former slave in Lowndes County, Alabama, was forced into unemployed homelessness in Montgomery, Alabama, as a result of the falling price of cotton. To earn an income, Traylor established himself as a sidewalk storyteller, and by 1939 he was also known for his pencil and charcoal drawings. Traylor’s drawings, displayed with clothespins on a clothesline, told stories of everyday life in his neighborhood in much the same way as photos by the Farm Security Administration photographers. Eventually Traylor was invited to join with other artists in Montgomery and exhibit his work in gallery settings.
Another example is Ben Hartman of Springfield, Ohio. In 1932, at the age of 48, Hartman lost his job at a local iron foundry. At that point he began what he referred to as his own WPA project. This project was to fill his backyard with a pond surrounded by small buildings covered with cement and stone. Hartman also created cement cast figures that peopled his landscape. Many of these figures were personages from history, radio, religion, and stories. Eventually Hartman’s Rock Garden became know to tourists and became a destination point. Admission to the garden was a nickel or a dime. In exchange, Hartman would give guided tours of his creations.
Quilt-making enjoyed resurgence during the Depression years. This resurgence was probably associated with pubic interest in Americana, coupled with a need to conserve and reuse scarce materials. Making a quilt provided the opportunity to reuse materials for a utilitarian purpose while simultaneously providing a creative outlet and the chance to join with other quilt makers for a common purpose. Quilt making became so popular as a creative outlet that Sears, Roebuck and Company sponsored a quilt contest at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Art and Artists in the United States, 1900-1929
At the beginning of the twentieth century, artists in the United States continued to be heavily influenced by art movements of the past. Collectors and the public were most comfortable with art inspired by classical styles borrowed from the Greeks and Romans, as well as with the conventions of the Italian Renaissance. This situation, however, was soon to change. Economic modernization, as well as scientific and technological developments rendered obsolete conventional ways of thinking and operating within the world. This change within American society had a profound impact on the arts as well.
In 1913 the Association of American Painters and Sculptors sponsored the International Exhibition of Modern Art in New York City at the 69th Infantry Regiment Armory. The purpose of this exhibit was to present the history of modern art from the nineteenth century through the work of contemporary European artists. The Armory show represented the United States’ modernist rebellion against the academic art styles continuing from the nineteenth century. Despite a huge public protest against the art on display, collectors in the United States to a great extent began to favor artists, particularly European artists, working in such modern styles as Cubism and Futurism.
America’s infatuation with modernism and modern art came to an abrupt end as a result of World War I (1914-1918). The United States entered a period of political and cultural isolationism as evidenced by the United States Senate’s rejection of President Woodrow Wilson’s (served 1913-1921) appeal for the United States to join the League of Nations. This was a period in which immigrants from Europe were suspected of harboring political and cultural points of view threatening to American democracy. It is not surprising that it was during this period that American collectors turned away from European artists towards American folk art, as well as toward artists and art representing American history and ways of living.
Art and Artists After 1929
The stock market crash of 1929 effectively ended an art market boom that begin in 1928. Suddenly, funding for any kind of art or artistic endeavor was gone. Artists scrambled to find money to feed their families as private support for the arts dried up.
The economic hardship experienced by artists that resulted after the stock market crash was made worse by the popularity of the movie industry. This was particularly true for actors and other professionals associated with theater. By the early 1930s theater productions were closing on a large scale due to poor audience attendance, thus putting large numbers of theater people out of work.
It was fortunate that as the social and economic standing of artists was plummeting, they were also being recognized within society as skilled professionals and laborers and therefore eligible for federal relief. It was also fortunate that American artists prior to the Depression had begun to concentrate on celebrating American life in their work. This allowed federal administrators to envision artists and artwork as being able to contribute to citizen solidarity in this period of economic instability.
Contributing also to the power of arts during the Depression was willingness on the part of artists to shift focus from the individual artist dependent on wealthy patrons to the power of worker groups and unions. Artists came together to assist one another and found encouragement and support to continue their artistic endeavors.
Nationally, particularly among politicians, civil servants, and industrialists, Federal One was perceived as having mixed results. Some saw Federal One as plagued by conflicts between those believing in rigidly imposed hourly employment expectations and those who believed the creative process could not be bound by such standards of employment. Politicians, specifically Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed to the WPA, believed Federal One to be producing political propaganda for the political left. This generated a congressional backlash resulting in funding cuts and eventual termination.
On the other hand, some politicians, civic leaders, artists, and publicly minded citizens recognized Federal One as providing much needed work to artists, resulting in significant contributions to the creative life of the nation, as well as providing a training ground for new talent. For example, it is not insignificant that some believe that the most experimental theater that has ever taken place in the United States occurred under the auspices of the FTP. Others saw the WPA and Federal One as ultimately contributing to an organizational structure that helped the United States to organize efficiently once the war effort began.
On the local level responses to Federal One were more uniformly positive. Support of this opinion comes from the large numbers attending public performances and exhibits associated with Federal One projects, and participation in the programs and classes offered by the community arts centers. The success of Federal One on the local level is also evidenced by the fact that it has been credited for stimulating a second “Harlem Renaissance” in New York City. This second renaissance included such groups as the Negro Experimental Theatre, the Negro Art Center, and the Harlem Community Art Center among others. Federal One is credited with providing an environment in which black American artists could address sociopolitical issues relevant to civil rights initiatives. It is important to also recognize, however, that in some communities there was controversy around art forms produced by non-resident artists. Such controversy usually involved local residents believing that an outsider had in some way misrepresented them. Other controversies resulted from artists resisting local influence on the content of their artistry.
It is important to consider the nationalism that infused the federal relief projects for the arts in an international context. Nationalism is when a nation places its needs significantly over the interests of other nations. Many nations around the world were experiencing nationalistic tendencies with different results. Both Germany and Italy, for example, were experiencing forms of nationalism that ultimately resulted in the Third Reich in Germany and Benito Mussolini’s fascist government in Italy. In both Germany and Italy there was the recognition, like that in the United States, that the arts can be a very powerful tool in furthering a government’s agenda. Like in the United States, artists in Germany and Italy participated in depicting the national scene. The results, however, were very different. Totalitarian policies in Germany and Italy were very controlling of what artists could and could not do. Artists that did not conform to such controls were likely to see their works destroyed. In the United States the executive branch of the federal government was much less controlling in this regard. Artists in the United States were more likely to feel such pressure in the private sector, as in the case of Diego Rivera and the administrators of the Rockefeller Center.
By the end of World War II (1939-1945) the realistic orientation of much of the art produced in the United States during the Depression was seen as quaint, socially claustrophobic, and not very personally expressive. Coupled with the influx and influence of European refugees, postwar America once again turned to European modernism and the abstraction associated with it. Coinciding with the post-World War II “Cold War” of the 1950s and 1960s was the rise and dominance of abstract expressionism in art. Abstract expressionism is art that seeks to portray emotions, responses, and feelings rather than objects in their actual likeness. Many of the artists associated with this movement, like Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, had once been realistically oriented artists working for Federal One.
There is ample evidence that Federal One did encourage later career development and the facilitation of artist networks. For example, well-known and widely respected actors like Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, and Patricia Neal were all associated with the FTP. Writers such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, and Zora Neale Hurston were associated with the FWP. There is reason to believe that the Federal Charter for a National Theater, signed by President Roosevelt in 1935, was sustained in part because of networks and experiences associated with the FTP. This charter was initiated by arts patrons from Philadelphia and New York who persuaded Congress to institute the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA). The purpose of ANTA was not to provide relief, but to provide historical and contemporary theater on a self-support basis. In the postwar period ANTA supported theater in colleges and universities, commissioned plays, and promoted experimental theater, television broadcasts of theater, and cultural exchanges.
Despite the rise and dominance of a modernist perspective in American arts following the Depression, Federal One and the socially relevant orientation of art during the Depression years continued to be an influence in the United States. For example, Baker Brownell, a Northwestern University scholar, began publishing on the role of art in community during the 1950s. He saw a close connection between the arts, economic development, and community planning. Associated with community theater and political activism in Wisconsin, Robert Gard wrote extensively during the 1950s and 1960s on the important relationship that exists between art and place in rural communities. He proposed that artists must connect with other civic associations to insure community health and vitality.
In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (served 1963-1969) signed Public Law 89-209, which ultimately established the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Once again the federal government was subsidizing the arts in America. The purpose, however, was not to provide relief to artists, but to instead facilitate and encourage the creative life of the United States. The immediate outcome of this law was the proliferation of arts organizations to the present day.
Federal support for the arts remains controversial, particularly regarding grants made to individual artists or to institutions perceived as experimental or rebellious. Both endowments, however, are committed to making the arts accessible to citizens of the United States, while simultaneously protecting and preserving America’s diverse arts and cultural heritage. Much of this work is accomplished by people who consider themselves to be “citizen artists” grateful to the artists who worked during the Depression in assisting the United States to survive intact a period of great financial instability and fragility.
Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964)
Blitzstein is credited with revolutionizing American theater both politically and stylistically. Under the auspices of the FTP, Blitzstein created a new theatrical form that was not fully musical theatre or opera. His work The Cradle Will Rock exemplifies a style combining popular music with social satire.
Hallie Flanagan (1889-1969)
Hallie Flanagan organized and directed all aspects of the FTP, including play selection, the hiring of regional directors, and the budget. This work was consistent with her desire to establish a network of theaters across the United States that would meet the needs and reflect the lives of people. Flanagan was the first female winner of the Guggenheim Award, a fellowship awarded to professionals in various fields to further their development by allowing them to perform research in their area of expertise. Flanagan used her award to research European national theaters.
Harry L. Hopkins (1890-1946)
Hopkins was the national director of the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration. He was a strong advocate for the incorporation of arts into the federal relief initiative.
William H. Johnson (1901-1970)
Johnson joined the FAP as a painter and was assigned a teaching post at the Harlem Community Art Center. Johnson’s first major solo exhibition was in 1941 at the Alma Reed Galleries in New York. The exhibition was reviewed by the two major art journals, Art News and Art Digest, as well as by all the large newspapers in New York. Johnson’s paintings documented contemporary life in Harlem and illustrated urban dancing and fashion of the period, including the jitterbug and zoot suits. His paintings also provided glimpses into the pastimes of urban children and youth.
Bob Porterfield (?-1971)
Porterfield was an out of work Shakespearean actor and promoter working as an elevator operator when he founded the Barter Theatre. Because of his background in promotions he was able to acquire publicity for this project. People could attend for the price of admission or the equivalent in produce. The Barter Theater was still in operation as of 2002.
Roy Stryker (1893-1975)
Stryker directed the documentary photography project for the Farm Security Administration. Hundreds of thousands of images were produced by notable photographers. Their focus was on life in rural America during the time of the Depression. Stryker later directed documentary projects for the Standard Oil Company (1943-1950), the city of Pittsburgh (1950-1951), and Jones & Laughlin Steel (1952-1958).
Orson Welles (1915-1985)
Orson Welles received national attention as a young director in the New York Federal Theatre Project. He received praise for his work on the Swing Mikado and Faustus. Later he became well known for his films, including Citizen Kane.
The Works Progress Administration—Federal One
In late July 1935, Hallie Flanagan accompanied Harry Hopkins, director of the WPA, on a train from Washington, DC, to Iowa City, Iowa. At a national theatre conference in Iowa City Hopkins was to announce Flanagan’s appointment to head a nationwide federal effort to assist unemployed actors. While on their way to Iowa, Hopkins discussed with Flanagan the need for the administration, and particularly artists, to receive relief. According to Flanagan, Hopkins later developed these ideas into a public speech to the United States Conference of Mayors in Washington, DC, in November 1937. This passage is recounted in Hallie Flanagan’s Arena (1940, p. 27).
It costs money to put a man to work and that’s why a lot of people prefer direct relief. These people (critics of the arts programs) say that if we make the working conditions decent and give people a reasonable minimum to live on, people will get to like their jobs. They suggest that we make relief as degrading and shameful as possible so that people will want to get ‘off.’ Well—I’ve been dealing with unemployed people for years in one way and another and they dowant to get off—but they can’t, apparently, get ‘off’ into private industry. Well—if they can’t get off into private industry, where can they turn if they can’t turn to their government? What’s a government for? And these people can be useful to America; they can do jobs no one else can afford to do—these slums, for instance. No private concern can afford to make houses for poor people to live in, because any private concern has got to show a profit. Why, we’ve [the WPA] got enough work to do right here in America, work that needs to be done and that no private concern can afford to touch, to lay out a program for twenty years and to employ every unemployed person in this country to carry it out.
The Federal Theater Project
Many of those who participated in the Federal Theater Project went on to have successful careers in the entertainment business. For example playwright Dale Wasserman would author “Man of La Mancha” and write the screenplay for the award winning motion picture “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” John O’Connor and Lorraine Brown quote Wasserman in their book Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project (1978, p. 7).
Federal Theatre was a wonderful, lucky thing because it kept alive possibilities in people who would never have made it otherwise, who would never have ended up in theatre at all. I myself might be one of them—I’m not absolutely sure. I was getting along barely; but living on about ten dollars a week while trying to practice one’s art, you may not survive too long. So Federal Theatre gave me two excellent opportunities. One was to stay alive, which was rather nice, and the other was a chance to learn arts that I didn’t know, that I was primitively ignorant about … It was very important for me and it was … a beautiful piece of luck when it happened.
Opposition to Federal Programs
Despite the creation of jobs brought about by government programs such as the Federal Theatre Project, federal projects in general that were initiated to counter the effects of the Depression were not without opposition. In 1938 the U.S. Congress House Committee on Un-American Activities, more commonly known as the Dies Committee, began to investigate the FTP as a threat to American democracy. Hallie Flanagan, the founder of the FTP, was adamant in her defense of the project and its contributions to democracy and to the United States. Even though by law political affiliations of participants in the WPA could not be collected, and that actors working in the theater were not permitted to join unions other than theater unions, the committee relentlessly pursued unfounded fears that theaters were becoming a hotbed of communism.
The Dies Committee filed a report with the U.S. House of Representatives on January 3, 1939, largely condemning use of federal funds to support theater productions through the FTP. The report, referenced in Flanagan’s Arena (1940, p. 347) summed up,
We are convinced that a rather large number of the employees on the Federal Theatre Project are either members of the Communist Party or are sympathetic with the Communist Party. It is also clear that certain employees felt under compulsion to join the Workers’ Alliance in order to retain their jobs.
Suggested Research Topics
- To what extent were United States artists forced to leave the United States during the Depression to seek support abroad?
- Most of the literature documents the work of European-American and black American artists during the Depression. What contributions did members of other ethnic and racial groups make? For example American Indians, Mexican Americans, or Asian Americans?
- How were youth involved in the Federal Theater Project?