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Season 1 Episode 1: The New Deal and the Arts, A Background
The Archives’ debut podcast episode focuses on the New Deal arts initiatives, providing an overview of their major features and a wide perspective on their histories and legacies. Drawing from the Archives’ first and most ambitious oral history collecting drive, the words and experiences of the artists and administrators who made the New Deal happen convey the stakes of these enormous national undertakings, while insight from contemporary experts provides context for the ongoing importance of those initiatives.
Because the New Deal initiatives were so large, we couldn’t possibly fit all the details into this episode. To learn more about the speakers, projects, and other things discussed in this episode, check our links below.
Jorena Pettway Sorting Peas inside her smokehouse, May 1939. Marion Post Wolcott. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017800759/
Migrant Mother (Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California), March 1936. Dorothea Lange. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017762891/
Allie Mae Burroughs, 1935-36. Walker Evans. https://www.loc.gov/item/00651773/
Oral History Interviews Featured
- Charles Henry Alston, 1965 September 28
- Mildred Baker, 1963 September 2
- Olga Burroughs, 1964 October 25
- Edward Chavez, 1964 November 5
- Dorothea Lange, 1964 May 22
- Audrey McMahon, 1964 November 18
- Gordon Parks, 1964 December 30
- Anton Refregier, 1964 November 5
- Roy Emerson Stryker, 1963-1965
- Marion Post Wolcott, 1965 January 18
- Charlotte Aiken and Helen Wool, 1964 April 17
- Barbara Bernstein, public art specialist, filmmaker, and creator of the New Deal Art Registry
- Gray Brechin, Gray Brechin, founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal
- Lauren Tilton, Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Richmond and co-founder of Photogrammar
- Kathy Vargas, artist and professor at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio
- Richard Walker, professor emeritus in Geography at the University of California at Berkeley and Executive Director of the Living New Deal
- Patricia Walsh, Public Art and Civic Design Senior Program Manager at Americans for the Arts
[Theme music plays]
Grey Brechin: That's a topic that's almost alien to us now...the idea of the government actually actively sponsoring all of the arts, not just the visual arts, but music, theater, writing, recording, archives, documents, etc. They didn't know what they were leaving us. They were just focused on getting through the depression and then the war.
Ben: Welcome to Articulated. I’m Ben Gillespie.
Michelle Herman: And I’m Michelle Herman. Support for this podcast comes from the Alice L. Walton Foundation.
For the past year, we have all been affected in different ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, social and political unrest, and coming to terms with the shadows from our past. The arts have been particularly affected as museums, galleries, and theaters were left shuttered; unemployment rates for artists and performers more than doubled in 2020.
As we begin to emerge from the wreckage and comprehend the impact of the pandemic on the arts and culture industry, how can we imagine a brighter, more empathetic, and more equitable future? Are there models we can look to for guidance and inspiration to not only combat this economic downturn in the arts, but to begin the process of healing as a country? We will be exploring these ideas and more in the coming episodes.
Ben Gillespie: Since 1958, the Archives of American Art has been amassing the largest collection of oral histories related to the visual arts in the world. These long-form interviews give witness to history as it unfolded through the voices of the figures who shaped and reimagined it. Here, on Articulated, we’ll put these first-hand accounts into dialogue with today’s scholars and artists.
In the 1960s, the Archives embarked upon its first major oral history drive, collecting more than 390 interviews with artists and administrators who had participated in the New Deal Arts initiatives some 30 years prior. Conversations with figures such as Dorothea Lange, Holger Cahill, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks have been invaluable resources for scholars, and in this miniseries we are going to provide background on the arts and artists of the New Deal, how they changed the landscape of America, and the lessons we are still learning from those transformative efforts.
Michelle Herman: The New Deal was the most ambitious public works program in the United States during the 20th Century–a sweeping series of reforms designed to improve and change the quality of each citizen’s life for generations to come. Out of the Great Depression’s wake, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted a sequence of policies that injected government funding into every aspect of American life. The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 sparked the creation of the Works Progress Administration or WPA (recoined as the Work Projects Administration in 1939), an agency that funded and facilitated works for the public good until its closure in 1943. Over the course of those eight years, the WPA employed millions of Americans to reshape every facet of the nation: from airports to observatories.
One outgrowth of those policies was support for the arts unlike anything else in American history. A significant project within the WPA was Federal Project Number One, a cluster of projects that employed some 40,000 artists, musicians, actors, and writers to create, construct, and perform. These programs: The Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and later the Historical Records Survey,offered relief and occupation to a devastated people. The Federal Art Project, headed by Holger Cahill, offered artists a living wage, while making those artists available to institutions such as schools, hospitals, and post offices to create murals, sculptures, and other works of art that suited each environment.
The earliest phase in the New Deal arts initiatives was the Public Works of Art Project, or PWAP, which ran from December 1933 to June 1934 and whose goal was to employ professional artists to embellish public buildings with works that depicted the “American scene.” The Coit Tower Murals in San Francisco were the most ambitious of these, and nearly 3800 employed artists created over 15000 murals and monuments during the short period.
Ben Gillespie: In addition to public works, the New Deal also funded a massive documentary effort through the photography project of the Farm Security Administration, or FSA.
Simultaneously sparked by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the FSA was originally known as the Resettlement Administration, which aimed to provide relief for rural farmers through relocation and modernization. As part of their efforts, the FSA brought on Roy Stryker, an economics professor from Columbia University to oversee the Historical Section, or information division, which set out to document Americans and agriculture in every corner of the US. These photos, roughly 175,000* in total, jump started the careers of some of the most influential and important photographers in history. They also serve as some of the most powerful testimonies of life during the Great Depression.
While the arts in the US underwent unparalleled growth through these initiatives, they were a small sliver of the federal projects.
To get a better sense of the full scale of the New Deal, we spoke with Richard Walker, professor emeritus in Geography at the University of California at Berkeley and Executive Director of the Living New Deal, an organization that studies, preserves, and presents the history of those public policies
Richard Walker: The New Deal's immense investment in infrastructure from 1933 to 1943, when it was finally shut down, underwrote the expansion of the United States, the recovery from the Great Depression, the waging of World War II, which people often don't realize, and it actually underwrote much of the post-war Golden Age of American rapid growth and world dominance. This was a necessary modernization of the fabric of the country for the 20th century. And again, people think, well, it's kind of boring stuff. It's not boring. It's public investment in the things that both people and the economy, businesses, required to function, whether it's electricity grids or it's the Internet today. So in the past, and then 20 early to mid 20th century, the key things that the country wanted were better roads because there were hundreds of thousands of miles of unpaved and ungraded and really bad roads. There was no Interstate, no major highways, and cars and trucks were replacing railroads at the time.Well, the New Deal absolutely boosted the road building programs of the country and covered the country with paved roads, for better or worse...but in that time really for better. Electricity was the main power source, infrastructural power source at the time other than petroleum...those two are coming on at the same time. But the thing that ran the sophisticated operations of industry and households, it's always electricity. And at that time, the electric grids were very partial. They did not extend to most of rural America, and the New Deal expanded them through the Rural Electrification Administration. They were able to extend electric power lines into the backcountry of America, to every corner of the country. And again, this is what I call modernization, because it isn't just you build stuff, you lay a bunch of concrete or you string wire, but it's actually bringing the country up to standards of the time, and because of the New Deal, the United States had the most modern infrastructure in the world for the next 50 years.
Ben Gillespie: While in contemporary usage, infrastructure is a buzzword for the basic physical structures and facilities that allow society to run, under the auspices of the New Deal, those basic structures also comprised the cultural and artistic foundations of the country.
The cascading public health and financial crises that began in 2020 have drawn many comparisons to the unemployment, demoralization, and uncertainty of the Great Depression. Patricia Walsh, Public Art and Civic Design Senior Program Manager at Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that advances public and private arts and education, told us about the potency of those efforts then and how they inspire Americans for the Arts today:
Patricia Walsh: Coming out of something like the Great Depression and sort of the the federal government’s response to be able to help, to help Americans basically not only get back on their feet, but also to feel supported and empowered at a time where things were just crazy, kind of like the past year with 2020 and everything we've been through as a country. And I think just seeing that level of support from the federal government during a time of crisis, I think was really important. And when it comes down to the vision or the acceptance to be able to incorporate the arts or find ways to support artists
and acknowledging that they needed help too, as employees—as people to be employed, I should say–was really just insightful of them for part of this work. I think they helped them between the writers and the visual artists, it allowed them to use their craft to be able to help do things that we're seeing a lot of artists do anyway, even in the past year or so in comparison which is just help raise morale and help tell stories of, you know, triumph and support and acknowledgement of what we're all kind of going through. And the fact that that was funded and driven from the federal government, I think provided an opportunity for Americans to really see themselves in their built environment, which we know is something that people really respond to. A few years ago, we dove into this project, into understanding why public art matters to communities, and one of the things is that people like to see themselves or see their values and how they identify reflected in the world around them in their everyday environments where they live, where they work, where they play, and how they how they get around as well. And I think part of what the New Deal helped with was to support a lot of that work. and made it ok.
Ben Gillespie: The value of connecting with a community was important for artists as they realized these projects at the time. It left an indelible impression on the practice of Edward Chavez, a painter who took on Federal Art Project work in Colorado and Nebraska in the late 1930s. Here are his reflections from his 1964 interview*:
Edward Chavez: I feel very good about my experience with the project painting days. I feel it was important. I have certain reservations and criticisms, perhaps, about its influence and about what the influence was on the painter, on the artist rather, but altogether, generally, I feel it was a very good experience, marvelous experience for the artist. Basically, I think, principally, in the contact that one had with the audience for which one was painting. In other words, there was a more direct influence between the audience and the artist, and we're beginning to get back to that now, the feeling that you have to communicate with your environment.
Michelle Herman: Installations and artists reached every nook and corner of the United States. Murals depicting agricultural and historical scenes were commissioned in post offices and art centers popped up in rural towns to help change the artistic landscape of the country and provided Americans with unparalleled access to art.
Artists and artisans designed these projects in conversation with communities. Before embarking upon a mural or installation, they would meet with locals and learn about the area’s history and values. The astonishing scale of the New Deal arts initiatives meant that artists covered almost the entire nation with these projects, giving people the opportunity to see themselves in works that were sponsored but not dictated by the federal government.
Barbara Bernstein, a public art specialist and filmmaker, created the New Deal Art Registry, which is an online resource with information, images, and locations for thousands of New Deal artworks. We spoke with her to learn about the value of these rooted projects:
Barbara Bernstein: You can see from the maps in the New Deal Art Registry, these very small towns that even today there's not a big highway going by them. They're quite isolated and yet, the federal...Washington, D.C. sent an artist to your town to find out something about your history or your industries, or your agriculture, and to paint a picture as big as a movie screen in your town. Something that reflected your life, and for people in the depression who were frightened and didn't know if anybody cared about them or anybody knew their plight, think of how encouraging it must have been to know that from far off Washington they cared enough about Alexandria, Louisiana, to actually spend money glorifying something about your town and gave it to you as a gift. In a frightening time, it must have been extremely heartening.
Ben Gillespie: While the Federal government facilitated and supported these projects, their form and realization were left up to local administrators and the artists themselves, which resulted in an array of styles. Programs gave rise to diverse aesthetic outputs that reflected their milieus, from new surges in regional architectural styles to geographically specific schools of art. Part and parcel with art that reflected the community’s history was art that reflected the community’s skills and taste. In 1963, Mildred Baker (née Holzauer), who worked as the assistant to the director Holger Cahill for the Federal Art Project, described one highlight:
Mildred Baker: That was one of the fascinating and interesting things that developed, that in various areas individual projects would turn up that we knew nothing about, but it would be because of local talent that existed there. For instance, in New Jersey, in South Jersey, there were several unemployed glass blowers, and there was a very interesting glass project that developed as a result of that. Now that wouldn't happen anywhere else; it was peculiar to the region. It depended a great deal on the talents of the people who were available.
Ben Gillespie: But how did the Federal Art Project connect with the talents of the people who were available?
Anton Refregier, a Russian-born American painter and muralist, narrated the process by which he joined the WPA in his 1964 oral history:
Anton Refegier: First of all, I would like to recollect the very procedure of getting on the WPA. You had to go– and this is probably recorded by many other artists–you had to be on relief. In other words, you had to be in a position not to be able to pay your rent, not to be able to buy a loaf of bread, and of course that already takes for granted that you don't have 15 cents to go to a movie, which is what it cost at the time. I was called in by Audrey McMahon, who was a wonderful girl, great administrator. I was already certified for relief, you see. Then the procedure was to take you off relief and put you on the WPA rolls, which paid $23.95 a week. I came in...the headquarters at that time was at College Art Association because Audrey McMahon was with the College Art Association until she was asked by the Federal government to assume responsibility for the project. I waited there with two or three other guys. Finally my turn came, I walked into the room, and very quickly they said to me, "Now, you've had some experience doing some murals before.” I guess they knew about those goldfish I was doing. “Now we have several projects we would like to assign you to. Would you like to do a courthouse or a hospital..?" I wish I could remember the third choice, Well I was not prepared to do a courthouse because you know this was the 30's where we were very sharp in re-evaluating our whole social system. To do a courthouse at that time, Joe, would have meant a pretty revolutionary statement. I wasn't chickening out, it was just that I didn’t have a position on it. Later on I wish I did do a courthouse. But I took probably the easiest thing which I think l was correct–first job, trying to feel your way around–I took the assignment of the Green Point Hospital in Brooklyn. Next day I was told that there were five artists waiting to meet me because they had already been assigned as my assistants.
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Ben Gillespie: A Black woman sits in a white chair in an apron and cap, her lap full of dried peas; she plucks individual seeds with her right forefinger and thumb, placing them in her loosely cupped left hand. Behind her, two shelved walls meet, containing a library of preserved peaches, peppers, carrots, and okra in sealed glass jars. Beneath the shelves, aluminum cans are stacked, waiting for the next yield to keep ready until they are needed. This photo by Marion Post Wolcott, entitled “Jorena Pettway Sorting Peas inside her smokehouse,” was taken in Gee’s Bend, Alabama in 1939, when Wolcott’s tour through the South was in full swing. While painters, sculptors, and artisans worked closely with communities to create public works that reflected the people, FSA photographers built trust intimately, finding the right scenes to capture the fleeting and grounding experiences of a country in crisis.
Michelle Herman: Instead of making artists available for customized creations, the photography project deployed a mobile team across the country. Each photographer’s travel often started as a specific assignment, say a specific mining town or farm, before their journey led them to new subjects.
At that point, they had flexibility to determine priorities and schedules, and they were only beholden to the head of the project, Roy Stryker, and the accounting department where they submitted receipts.
Ben Gillespie: An economics professor before joining what would be known as the FSA, Stryker became one of the most influential forces in photography thanks to his time at the helm of the Administration’s Historical Section, also known as the Information Division, which housed the photography project. He reflected on their collective motivation in an oral history that was conducted across several sessions between 1963 and 1965.
Speaking in quick clips, Stryker describes the “we still can carry on” spirit the photographers observed, and how in perceiving the heartbreak and resilience of the Depression, they came to see themselves.
Roy Stryker: We believed, we knew, we saw, we sensed we were a part of this perception, part of coming in contact, part of seeing a world, a country of ours in turmoil, a country in trouble. We weren't beaten. But all we had to fear is fear itself. They were getting away from that. And people, sure, they were downtrodden, beaten, but...land found people that were off their land, but, damn it all, if you watch those captions and look at some of the pictures, by God, some of those guys said, "We still can carry on." So those are the things we found. We were part as subtly perceiving by becoming, by facing it.We saw ourselves.
Ben Gillespie: This reckoning with reality at the heart of the FSA’s indexing has proved invaluable for future generations of photographers and for the use of photography as the medium of witnessing in modern times. Several photographs from the project, such as Migrant Mother, which Dorothea Lange took of Florence Owens Thompson in 1936, or the portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs shot by Walker Evans that same year, have not only become some of the most iconic images of the 20th century, the entire enterprise of recording the human experience through film became standard in the years that followed the massive undertaking. To understand the legacy of these pictures and the ethics behind them, we spoke with Kathy Vargas, an artist who works at the convergence of photojournalism and documentary photography; she currently teaches at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio:
Kathy Vargas: I think for me the FSA photographers were some of the greatest teachers we ever had because they taught us how to see. They taught us what to see. They taught us to see in a respectful and relevant way, and they put it at the service of a country that desperately needed them at that time.
The fact that these very diverse characters were able to all of them create empathy, not just sympathy, but empathy for the people who were suffering at the time could really rally to present a different way of looking at a horrible reality and photograph that reality keeping their subjects' dignity intact. That to me is amazing.
Michelle Herman: Behind the legendary lenses, however, the FSA weighed the difficult balance between empowering photographers to take on far-flung quests and establishing a historic account that would stand the test of time.
Dorothea Lange, one of the stars who made significant contributions to the project, recounted the first line that proved so generative in her 1964 oral history:
Dorthea Lange: You speak of organization, I didn't find any. You speak of work plans, I didn't find any. I didn't find any economics professor. I didn't find any of those things. I found a little office, tucked away, in a hot, muggy, early summer, where nobody especially knew exactly what he was going to do or how he was going to do it. And this is no criticism, because you walked into an atmosphere of a very special kind of freedom. And anyone who tells you anything else, and dresses us up in official light is not truthful, because it wasn't that way. That freedom that there was, where you found your own way
without criticism from anyone, was special. That was germane to that project. That's the thing that is almost impossible to duplicate or find.
Ben Herman: At its end, the project and its more than 175,000 photographs are a staggering testimony to the people of the United States during the Great Depression as well as the potential of those people when encouraged to creative ends by federal funding. In her 1965 interview, Marion Post Wolcott, an FSA photographer who was especially celebrated for her portrayals of life in the rural south, described the lasting effects of their efforts to record the state of the nation:
Marion Post Wolcott: I think that one of the main things it contributed, as I said I was trying to make some notes before you came, I feel that FSA, as well as Roy's documentary section, as well as the photographic section but the whole FSA program and that whole New Deal program was a breakaway from tradition and that our documentary section was just a part of a larger thing. Well, in my notes I have written that it was the beginning of the recognition and assumption of responsibility–governmental assumption of responsibility–for the welfare of the individual, and I think that that was one of its most important contributions and that we were the photographic end of it. I think it was a part of a much larger movement and the beginnings of it.
Ben Gillespie: The trailblazing project has become a blueprint for many photographic documentary endeavors in its wake, and the unwavering emphasis on the humanity of their subjects and the need to address, acknowledge, and engage with those subjects left a deep impression with many who were part of the FSA. Helen Wool, one of the secretaries in the Historical Section, contemplated the ethical implications of their work and the specific power of photography to make humanness visible:
Helen Wool: Where I have been able to express myself a little better is that...a school board says that there will be thirty-five desks in a room. But I don't think children are desks. and I think that's the way he felt about it. This story had to be told, and if it took so many more dollars to tell it, you couldn't cut it off here and here and here. You had to tell the whole story or couldn't tell anything. And if you were hampered by having to tie a string to the purse strings then you couldn't use your imagination in order to be able to get the facts down. I think that when you try and make an animate subject an inanimate subject you lose all sense. You can't treat a child as a desk; a child is a human being. You can't treat a picture as just a piece of paper. What's in that picture has got to tell the story and you have to feel it.
Michelle Herman: As with nearly any arts project, funding was a significant issue—while the federal government paid artists to work for specific projects, institutions and art centers often had to provide materials, a significant burden during an economic slump.
Olga Burroughs was an arts administrator for the Federal Art Project in Sacramento, CA, and she talks about the disparate experiences that art centers had with Federal funds—some were expected to raise funds from community members, while others were able to receive enough government funds to administer and produce their installations. In her 1964 oral history, Olga Burroughs laments the burden of administrators, like herself, needing to raise additional funds within a community.
Olga Burroughs: The point I’m making about “the money must be raised in a community” is that that doesn’t ensure that the community is interested neither does it–if you can’t raise it–neither does it in any way say that the community isn't interested. It's just a job that uh shouldn’t need to be done.
Ben Gillespie: And money is always an issue; while salaries were standardized across the Federal Art Project, the recipients of that money were not,
and artists often had to advocate for one another in order to garner adequate support. While the WPA was designed as an open relief roll in which applicants and workers could be selected without regard to race, sex, or ability, discrimination was still rampant. Charles Henry Alston, a painter and muralist in Harlem, details the challenges faced by Black artists during the program in his 1965 oral history:
Charles Henry Alston: For instance, we discovered that a lot was going on in the WPA that we weren't getting the benefits of, you know. When it got into full swing, I think there was about... I think Augusta Savage was the first person that got a supervisor's job in the WPA. We began bringing some pressure on them for more jobs, more jobs both for the Negro artist–because they didn't really know who the Negro artists were...
We made some protests, we got a committee together, and we pointed out that–not necessarily through any intent–there are a lot of people around who qualified and were not being accepted on this. We put pressure on them. We got practically every serious Negro artist in the community, who needed to be on the Project, we got them on, plus we got a few more supervisorships.
Michelle Herman: Those supervisory roles gave Black artists more agency within the realization of local projects, as well as strengthening the ties between the community and the art being made within it.
The struggle to raise the funds or adapt a project to suit what was available was a major pitfall for many Federal Art Project ventures, but that friction also provided the heat by which many great productions were realized.
Ben Gillespie: The energy and edification driven by the Federal Art Project were still as potent as ever some 30 years later, as we hear in the 1965 oral history of Audrey McMahon, who was director of the College Art Association before becoming director of the Federal Art Project for the New York Region:
Audry McMahon: And you see, you had both more liberty and more restrictions than you were accustomed to in your life. And you had this liberty and these restrictions in areas that you hadn’t before...and that you had not yet seen as areas with liberty or restriction. Sometimes, the program went ahead of the development of the individual and the individual had to run and capture up with the agency. The artist matured on the job. The Unions matured on the job. I matured on the job. And all of my administrators, who were young people, and eager young people, mostly artists, matured on the job. And here we were all growing at the same time as this mammoth thing was growing. It wasn’t administered by a group of older people who had had precedent, experience, it was a peer-management. We were peers. We were mostly...most of the artists were either my age or older than I. They are all around now–well some have died–but they’re mostly around now. It was this group that learned and grew while learning. And I certainly, as I told you before, had such slight administrative training, really. Now maybe I would have done much better, and maybe they would have done much better if they had had a person I had had more training and if they had had a person with more training. But they would not have gotten the enthusiasm, the belief, the courage, and the unending 24-hour-a-day effort. It was nothing for us to work three and four days without stopping, no nights. We all believed deeply in what we did. I’m positive that every one of us, even Carl–who was the least involved–believed deeply in what we were doing. Certainly I believed in it passionately, and I believe in it still, as passionately.
Michelle Herman: That passion manifested in several ways, from advocacy for government-funded arts, to the belief in art for all,
to reimagining what cultural life might look like in the United States. The importance of these New Deal projects as accounts of the nation itself were apparent to the artists, even as they created them.
When asked about the value of the FSA photography project, renowned photographer Gordon parks had no hesitation in responding:
Gordon Parks: It’s of great historic importance. It, you know, it's preserved, right? People in millenniums ahead will know what we were like in the 1930's and the thing that, the important major things that shaped our history at that time. This is as important for historic reasons as any other.
Michelle Herman: When asked if the government should continue to fund similar efforts, he replied:
Gordon Parks: I certainly think we should. I think we should have some sort of thing that will keep the record straight...
Ben Gillespie: Though the FSA photography project and Federal Art Project works were separate arms of the New Deal and resulted in distinct bodies of work, thinking across them can be useful for understanding the larger trajectory of their total legacy.
We spoke with Lauren Tilton, Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Richmond and co-founder of Photogrammar, a digital humanities project that offers the full FSA photo catalogue with location data, order of shots, and other powerful search options, about what she sees as some of the overlooked achievements of the New Deal arts initiatives.
Lauren Tilton: You know, over a dozen photographers over almost a decade...it's just one project during the New Deal, and it's a relatively small one compared to the rest of the projects during the New Deal. Other projects include the Federal Theater Project, the Federal Writers Project, and others under Federal Arts Number One and other major commitments. I think you know what's amazing is in this collection is Ben Shahn to the FSA. He's a photographer, but to the Federal Arts he's an acclaimed painter who would only rise in prestige over the 20th century. People almost forget that he was a photographer, actually. They think of him as a painter, yet he has incredible photos in this collection, and he was trained by Walker Evans in photography. So you think about just one person who traverses two major federal projects, travels across them, becomes an acclaimed artist of the 20th century, all because of a commitment to the arts by the federal government. Not even mentioning the political work he was doing on behalf of the New Deal state, and all the other things, just that one person. The point is that Photogrammar, I think, shows the expanse of the major New Deal unit.
Michelle Herman: Though these projects were astoundingly huge, they were also executed very quickly, producing the largest body of public art and a massive body of documentary work in under a decade. They not only reshaped fundamental infrastructure and the cultural landscape, they also served as incubators for thousands of artists and artisans, laying the groundwork for a national renaissance and a new estimation for art that reflected 20th-century life in the US. Mildred Baker, administrator of the WPA central office, knew the value of nurturing homegrown talent:
Mildred Baker: Well, I think it was a vastly important period, because so many of the artists who are thriving today, survived during that period as artists simply because of the project, and I think many of them will acknowledge that. Have you interviewed people like Philip Guston or de Kooning or...well, you have interviewed Stuart Davis. These are the outstanding artists of our period and when you read the list–especially of those employed here in New York–you'll see how much it really has meant in the development of American Art. I think appreciation was one thing that was developed. People were exposed to art as they never were before, and then the individual artist who was given a chance to live as an artist… and the talents that were stimulated through the leadership that some of the young people had.
Ben Gillespie: The household-name artists who were supported, established, and launched by the New Deal arts initiatives have continued to drive scholarly interest,
but the reality is that it took thousands of artists, artisans, and administrators to realize this enormity. In order to think about the treasures left behind that have yet to be understood let alone appreciated, we asked Gray Brechin, founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal, what drew him to these projects in the first place and what keeps his work going:
Gray Brechin: The triumph is how exciting it is to do this work, because it's like a great archaeological dig into a lost civilization that my parents created but then neglected to tell us about because they probably weren't even aware themselves. They were just focused on getting through the depression and then the war and they didn't know what they were leaving us because almost nobody could conceive of the whole thing. Even Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior in charge of the Public Works Administration, said those of us in Washington can't keep track of what we are doing. So it's the ubiquity of it and also the great beauty of so much of it, because it was so reliant on public art, and the public art is everywhere. And that's a topic that's almost alien to us now...the idea of the government actually actively sponsoring all of the arts, not just the visual arts, but music, theater, writing, recording, archives, documents, etc. And so I would say that the triumph is just discovering...rediscovering this lost civilization and trying to bring it back to show that it's not dead, it’s still alive.
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This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman from the Smithsonian Archives of American art.
Audio engineering is by Hannah Hethmon of Better Lemon Creative Audio.
With music compositions by Viet Cuong that were performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble, conducted by Harlan Parker.
Special thanks to Kyrie Blackman, Evan Blackwell, Laura Foose, Mikala Jones, Cassandra Leon, Misty Lizarraga, Tiffany Nall, Mimi Tarter, Osimiri Sprowal, and Tabara Sy for their research contributions.
The Archives of American art at the Smithsonian Institution is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations from individuals like you to sustain our ongoing operations and special programs like Articulated. To support our work, please visit our website at aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.