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Season 1 Episode 4: New Horizons of the New Deal
Art in America was forever altered by the New Deal, and its sweeping significance is palpable throughout infrastructure, public art, photography, and cultural institutions. In recent years, new initiatives to preserve and study the New Deal have emerged, as have new conversations as to how the United States should nurture the arts. This episode considers the longevity and exemplariness of the New Deal in its cultural and social influence.
Oral History Interviews Featured
- Guy and Genoi Pettit Maccoy, 1965 July 24
- Jay Du Von, 1963 November 7
- Phyllis Crawford, 1964 August 27
- Juan Menchaca, 1964 Nov. 11
- Dorothea Lange, 1964 May 22
- John Collier
- Margaret Taylor Burroughs, 1988 November 11-December 5
- Charlotte Russell Partridge, circa 1965
- Sargent Johnson, 1964 July 31
- Mary Dill Henry, 1964 May 12
- Olga Burroughs, 1964 October 25
- Nina Perera Collier, 1964 October 23
- Mildred Constantine, 1965 October 15
- 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
- Kathleen Lynch, Director of Operations at the Art Production Fund
- Eto Otitigbe, Assistant Professor, Brooklyn College and sculptor
- 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
[Intro Music Plays]
Barbara Bernstein: It's true that none of the New Deal artists– very few of them–became the really famous artists of the next generation, but these were the people who became our teachers and who started community art shows and community art centers. And you know, summer art fairs. And I think they had an outsized influence, not in the, you know, New York, high priced art gallery world, but in the community art world.
Ben Gillespie: 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.
This is the fourth and final episode in a series on the New Deal arts initiatives, which draws from the Archives of American Art's collection of over 300 New Deal Oral History interviews with the people who made the New Deal happen.
In our previous episodes, we covered the range and scope of these projects, America's burgeoning art scene, cultural identities, and the equity and labor issues that grew underneath and through the arts initiatives. If you haven't listened to those episodes and would like to get a better idea of New Deal history, you may want to go back and listen to episodes one, two, and three.
Ben Gillespie: The New Deal arts initiatives propelled a massive cultural surge across the United States that rescued many Americans from poverty during the Great Depression by giving them work. Between 1934 and 1942, unemployment was significantly reduced and the GDP rose by an average of roughly 10% per year. And through the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, and Farm Security Administration Photography Project, or FSA, hundreds of thousands of works of art, musical and theatrical performances, and photographs were created to document and sustain life in the nation.
But some tensions would not subside. Members of Congress lashed out against the Federal Theater Project, stoked by fears of racial integration and communist infiltration, culminating in the 1939 Federal Reorganization Act. The sequence of legislation eliminated the FTP explicitly and reshuffled federal funds so that other arts projects would rely more heavily on local and state support.
Against the grain of these drastic measures, the proponents of the New Deal found that many communities–boosted economically and culturally≠found their footing and resolve to support the arts that had just begun to flourish. The change came with an acronym shift, of course, as the WPA went from Works Progress Administration to the New Work Projects Administration.
Despite the program's resilience, it was the beginning of the end for the arts initiatives, which would be deprioritized in the coming years.
Guy Maccoy and Geno Pettit were a printmaking power couple who met in Kansas City, worked in Colorado, and then launched their careers in New York City. They were especially known for their contributions to serigraphy, or silk screen printing, during the WPA and beyond.
In their 1965 interview with Betty Hoag, they describe the nostalgia and disappointment they felt in looking back at the Project.
Betty Hoag: It was so wonderful what they did at that time.
Guy Maccoy: In most cases you see, this was...of course were as far as I'm concerned, you see, it also had kind of a sad, it had this sad note for most of these artists because I think they have the sad note comes when they found that the government really, truly wasn't interested in art...
Betty Hoag: After the emergency was over. But don't you think that was more the war that ended it?
Guy Maccoy: It possibly was. I rather think so. So, you know, and I'm sure that we all know that our interests, most of the time, at this period was one in which we gave a lot of lip service to culture, but the minute it came time to get back into the real rush of good business, they quickly closed up the other department. And maybe rightly so. I'm not sure. Maybe, maybe this is the way the world has to grow.
Betty Hoag: I think we did a lot of growing and got a lot of good out of it.
Guy Maccoy: Yes,
Betty Hoag: hope it happens again.
Michelle Herman: Phyllis Crawford was an administrator for the Index of American Design in New Mexico. In her 1964 interview with Sylvia Loomis she recalls the political drama surrounding challenges to direct relief employment through the WPA
Phyllis Crawford: Of course, we all of us knew that this was temporary.
It would go on only so long as Congress gave us the funds, but I'll never forget the day somebody came back from lunch with an afternoon paper. Banner headline: the Supreme Court was considering the question of whether the WPA was constitutional.
Whoever brought in this newspaper, just held it up. And we all looked up and burst out laughing because it was so funny here we were planning something that would take at least 10 or 15 years with all of us and a larger staff and more people all over the country more than were employed on the index of American design at that time.
It would take at least 10, 15, 25 years. We were planning this big and here by tomorrow morning we might be unconstitutional and out of jobs.
It just seems so so ironic.
Sylvia Loomis: All these alarms were constant during that period, I was involved in it too. So I remember some, but I don't happen to remember that one. That might've been before I was involved in it myself, because I assume that it was not declared unconstitutional.
Phyllis Crawford: Well, we were still dependent on Congress to appropriate money to keep us going. While I was still working on the index, Congress did cut the funds.
Sylvia Loomis: There was still a great deal accomplished in spite of all this?
Phyllis Crawford: Absolutely! The enthusiasm with which people work on a job that they feel is worth doing—this is not just working for a living—this is, this is worth doing. That's the exciting thing. Several of us were talking one day and in spite of the fact that we might be discontinued any moment, we all felt more secure than we ever had on any job in all our lives, because we knew we wanted to stay with it.
Michelle Herman: The assault on the Federal Theater Project continued when a subpoena was issued for its director, Hallie Flanagan, to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The House Un-American Activities Committee, which was also known as the Dies Committee after Martin Dies Jr., was part of a decade, twisted with fears and progress as the nation grappled with its identity vis-a-vis internal frictions and international conflict.
The high stakes of the criteria for "American" or "security" were clear, even then as Jay Du Von an administrator for the Federal Writers' Project presciently observed in his 1963 interview with Harlan Phillips:
Jay Du Von: Well, I have some sympathy too as I look back on it. These guys were sure that someplace there were mysterious Communists who were pulling strings and so on. They didn't have much ability or desire, it seemed to me, to separate out the truth from the fanciful.
Harlan Phillips: Yeah.
Jay Du Von: Or the rantings of a paranoid from someone who is honest and sincere. If the paranoid would tell them something they wanted to hear, they would listen to it and give it exactly as much credence as they would someone who told them something they didn't want to hear. So, you were shadowboxing sometimes with...well, you'll see in this record. This fellow by the name of Banta who was one of the persistent attackers of the writer's project...must have been out of his mind in one way or another.
Harlan Phillips: Yeah.
Jay Du Von: And trying to defend yourself against someone like that is impossible.
Let's take the word “security.”
“Security” meant one thing in the Thirties, and we had the social security laws passed and then wartime... “security” meant what?
Security from the enemy, I guess, in the military sense, and then we come along the end of the war; we begin to get security in the sense of security of information—just a single word going through a whole permutation of meanings.
Michelle Herman: Just 18 months after the Federal Theater Project shut down, the United States would enter World War II where the New Deal initiatives would go through their final metamorphosis as all resources went towards the war effort. Many workers and artists on the projects were reshuffled to those enterprises and the photography projects at the FSA gradually merged with the OWI—the Office of War Information—to document military preparation and to distribute images of the US that stoked pride and raised morale.
Helen Wool and Charlotte Aiken, both administrators for the FSA, talked about that change and how their work with Roy Stryker, head of the photography project, integrated into the larger schema of the New Deal and then the war effort in their 1964 interview:
Helen Wool: The point of the thing is that as it grew—I wasn't with the Rural Resettlement at all, I came in when it was Farm Security—but I did stay when it switched to OWI, and then again there was a very drastic difference. But in that drastic difference, he still stuck to the same type of basic idea, that America is America and that's all there was to it. We had psychological warfare films, and we had displays and we had defense bond things and everything else. But, underneath it, he was selling America as it should be sold.
Charlotte Aiken: That's right.
Helen Wool: I think that that was the thing that people forgot. They just couldn't understand. You sold bonds and you sold bonds but you didn't sell bonds; you sold America. And in order to sell America, you sold the bonds. The people bought the bonds. The same with psychological...during that war period that were undercover. I mean you just didn't say anything about it, but the way he sold America in his picture stories really was one of the most wonderful things, and of course, that's what's near and dear to me because I worked with it at that time very closely.
Ben Gillespie: It was a new picture of America that was coming into view, one that included more of its people and incorporated art at its very core. Juan Menchaca, a diorama designer who worked in Denver and Fort Worth, describes the transition of his work and its importance during the war in his 1965 interview with Sylvia Loomis:
Sylvia Loomis: Well then after the WPA project closed down then you continued right on?
Juan Menchaca: Well, in ’41 I was still working with the Arts project doing portraits for the Federal Art. Turner Mesick was the supervisor–director I might say–his field was beginning to at that time in ’41 the project was, you might say, it was in. And a lot of the workers have–some those that were young enough to go into service–they went to service and others–begin to break away and find employment in different places. I was interested in getting either in the service or to find a place where I could be of more value to the war effort and I made one application with uh the Remington plant was begin to operate, and the next thing knew I was altogether in a different field. I was with the Lowry and my job or my assignment was to become an instructor in camouflage.
Sylvia Loomis: Oh.
Juan Menchaca: And uh this was at the time when the Army or any of the military operations could change from day to day, after two months of training the camouflage unit was uh eliminated because it was felt that the camouflage was part of the engineering instead of the Air Corps.
Sylvia Loomis: I see.
Juan Menchaca: I was assigned to, to a job in the reproduction division and I was given the title of uh litho artist, making line drawings for offset reproduction.
Sylvia Loomis: But for what purpose?
Juan Menchaca: Well, this was for a manual for training,
Sylvia Loomis: I see.
Juan Menchaca: And here again, I became involved in making models and I made one for the training, official identification of ships that supposedly...and I believe that I saw one of the first photographs taken by our reconnaissance unit from Balboa Harbor,
and I was commended by the commanding officer; and this model was kept for quite a number of years. Also, I did a model making with the convalescent group those that had returned from Europe, specifically from Salerno and we had a unit of men that had been a shot or a wounded and they participated with me and we produced a large scale model this field. And to me I thought it was a rewarding thing that I was able to do a lot of this, and I might add that a lot of this was done besides my regular duty with the reproduction division.
Sylvia Loomis: I see was the sort of therapy for the men?
Juan Menchaca: Yes, and they found it quite interesting because some of these men, really relaxed to participate, they talked about their experience, and I learned a lot from and we did get a lot of comments, favorable comments for this work
Ben Gillespie: The participants in the New Deal often looked back with great fondness at the robust period of growth and freedom enabled by government support for individual artists and their expression. Gray Brechin, Founder and Project Historian for the Living New Deal, told us about a powerful conversation he had with an actress from the FTP:
Gray Brechin: another thing that came to me was I was interviewing a woman named Toby Cole here in Berkeley at the end of her life. She was an actress in the Federal Theater Project and then a theatrical agent who rescued some of the actors who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy period, like Peter, Ustinov for example. And I remember what she said to me at that time, she said: “In my opinion, it was the most creative period in American cultural life because of the government patronage.” I thought that that was an overstatement of the time. I've since come to agree with her, actually, because there was such lavish government patronage of art, which is typically the province of the wealthy and the elite and the artists actually have to bend their own intentions to that of those who pay them.
But when the government sponsored it, in fact, they were given much more freedom to do what they wanted. Which isn't to say that they didn't run into trouble; many of the artists who worked for the New Deal gave the administrators back in Washington DC, and even in their own localities, some really big headaches.
Ben Gillespie: These headaches and troubles with some works produced by WPA artists didn't end with the New Deal. Several murals represent People of Color or Native people in offensive ways, and historically excluded groups often did not have autonomy or say in the representation they received. Barbara Bernstein, founder of the New Deal Art Registry, told us about some of the painful threads:
Barbara Bernstein: You know, the genius of the New Deal was to put art in public places where everybody could see them as part of their daily lives. The idea was that you wouldn't have to visit a museum or know a person who was an art collector. Just by going to the post office or going to the library or going to school, you would encounter an original work of art that showed you something about your part of the country, its history, its industries, whatever. But the problem is it you know this art is now still in public places, and it's 70 years old, and some of it has not aged well. And unless you can look at it through the lens of history and in the content, the circumstances of its creation, which I think are so interesting that it was government-funded art.
But unless you sort of see it in that context, it just looks you know, like a really old-fashioned and out-of-date offensive thing, and why should you have to look at it every time you go to school?
Michelle Herman: While the content of many murals has not stood the test of time, the enormity of the New Deal arts projects created a body of work that dwarfs public art since, which means that subsequent generations have not had the chance to make their own work or reflect their own values in public spaces.
Patricia Walsh: I think what we're also seeing through some of the WPA murals that came out of, out of the New Deal and some of the work that was supported
is there were themes and concepts that were okay to talk about or the way to present certain topics. But particularly about, the way either Native Americans or people of color were represented, which didn't doesn't translate to now-- trying to understand what are the stories that we're trying to keep and move forward, and do we really want to hold onto those and have a conversation about them? So that's in and of itself as its own challenge to unpack that we still need to, to kind of figure out how we're going to reconcile, as a field, and I think even as a country.
Michelle Herman: Richard Walker, Director of the Living New Deal and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, also spoke to us about what it means to represent America through art.
Richard Walker: When it comes to art, an important point, of course, is the representations of American history and American ideology in public art. And, we run into, of course, the Black Lives Matter movement and the historical absolutely fundamental awakening of Americans in 2020. And in general, in our times to the offensiveness of white supremacy and how it shows up in everyday education, every day, art, artworks, and other, you know, writings and so on. So what do we do about that? How do we handle that? How can we help people think about these things? How can we invest in better education. And that's part of what we should be doing to change American culture, to overcome the legacy of white supremacy.
Michelle Herman: As we think about what it means to build a new future with our art, Eto Otitigbe, a sculptor based in Brooklyn, elaborated on his vision of a public art that doesn't narrowly define public.
Eto Otitigbe: Some values that I would love to see reflected in public art are: an openness; a way for public art to invite folks, to explore curiosity; a way for public art to open conversations and inspire dialogue between communities. I think what we see, especially with, you know, the movements really in the early 1900s for a lot of Confederate statutes to be implemented or installed around the United States by a very closed group of folks with a very kind of focused political and social agenda, you know, it didn't work. So now what I'm interested in, in work that kind of presents a constellation of ideas for people to, to navigate through work that kind of has these different nodes that are entry points for lots of different conversations and not just one particular focus view. and whether that happens to works that are temporary or permanent or if it invites performance I still think there's a great need and there's a great, reason to have permanent kind of really fixed public artworks as well. You know, I'm certainly working on some, but I think as long as it allows for openness and, and conversation and exchange throughout its whole life cycle, from when it's conceived and, and, you know, the whole ideation process, even in how it's fabricated, you know, and who's, who's making it, who's installing it. How will it be preserved? How will it be conserved? How will it be maintained? Was the community aware of it? Is it just these pieces of blubber texture that are falling out, you know, around? just so a city can say, well, we have this in our portfolio from XYZ, famous artists, but you know, the work doesn't really have anything to offer beyond its a kind of cultural capital, in that way.
Ben Gillespie: In addition to the public art of the WPA, the FSA created a documentary of the United States through nearly 200,000 photographs.
The sheer scale of the project and complexity of its legacy were not lost on participants at the time. John Collier, Jr., an FSA photographer who went on to become a major figure in visual anthropology, lamented the lack of a statistical picture of the FSA in his 1965 interview:
John Collier: The eye-stoppers, the “killers,” the dramatic pictures will never finally be the thing that will tell us what was going on. It will be the net impact of the record, and some of the record has got to be very mediocre and not much,
but in the whole anthropological, sociological, historical data that today, tomorrow, or a hundred years from now anyone who wanted to reconstruct that period culturally could do it.
Michelle Herman: Dorothea Lange described the same issue with the historical perspective of 1964, as she talked about the challenges for making meaningful photography.
Dorothea Lange: It takes a lot to get full attention to a picture these days because we are bombarded by pictures every waking hour, in one form or another, and transitory images seen unconsciously in passing, from the corner of our eyes, flashing at us, and this business where we look at bad images, impure. I don't know why the eye doesn't get calloused as your knees get calloused or your fingers get calloused.
Michelle Herman: The challenges posed by the overwhelming number of images in our world today have not diluted the lessons taught by the FSA photographers. We heard about their legacy from Kathy Vargas, an artist who works at the convergence of photojournalism and documentary photography, who currently teaches at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
Kathy Vargas: The legacy of the FSA is to inform. It is to inform in a respectful and empathetic manner. It is to document realities and call for change. It is to support our fellow human beings. It is to move beyond our personal politics. And understand that all of us are at the service of humanity and the photographers who worked in the past, the photographers who were working now, they're the ones who are leading us there. If they make potent images, they're the ones who can lead us there because it's hard to turn away from an image that ripps your heart out. That's the future.
Michelle Herman: The legacy of the FSA was not just in the photographs taken, but also in the example, it's set for subsequent documentary projects. Photogrammar, for example, is a digital humanities project that offers the full FSA photo catalog with powerful research tools. We spoke to Lauren Tilton, the co-founder of Photogrammar and Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Richmond about how these bodies of work can serve as persuasive evidence.
Lauren Tilton: So Documerica is basically modeled on the FSA in the 1970s by the environmental protection agency. And what they do is they send photographers around the US documenting the impact of our environmental policies: that we're leaving chemicals in the air, polluting. They were, documenting the need for environmental protections because of the deregulation or lack of regulation of companies that were leaving the environment scorched and poisoned and unusable and then also devastating entire communities as a result of that. I think putting FSA and Documerica together would be a really exciting possibility for the future. They both demonstrate an effort on behalf of the federal government to think about how photography can impact social policy and imagine a more equitable world through the support of a social security state and then through the support of environmental protections. And in some ways, both projects reflect a moment of, progressive possibility Where photography was not just documenting, but meant to be put in service of powerful arguments for policy changes that could imagine a different future for the nation.
Michelle Herman: In that same 1964 oral history, Dorothea Lange framed the lasting import of the FSA and the connection it fostered between photographers, their mission, and the people they served.
Dorothea Lange: Well, you've put your finger on the heart of the Farm Security Administration adventure. Because it is almost inexplicable, that particular—you know there is a word: élan. There was something; there was something that I...I would understand it better myself if it applied to one of us only. But it didn't. It caught like it was contagious. When you went into that office when it was a little office and later on when it was a big office, you were so welcome. And they was glad to see you, and you were back your, did you have a good trip, was everything all right? What you were doing was important, and you were important. Not in the way in an organizational chart. Not that way at all. Which made you feel that you had a responsibility. Not to those people in the office, but in general. As a person expands when he has an important thing to do. You felt it. We photographers are somewhat picked at random. We were’nt hand-picked. We were educated on the job; the United States Government gave us a magnificent education, Every one of us, every one of us.
Ben Gillespie: Works created by New Deal artists still surround us as ample evidence of their legacies, but many of the New Deal's reverberations are less visible. The WPA funded dozens of art centers, creating magnets for art education and community throughout the United States, and these centers—some of which are still in operation today—have nurtured grassroots cultural transformations for decades.
Just to name a few of these institutions approaching 90 years of operation: the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico began in 1935; the Sioux City Art Center in Iowa started its educational mission in 1937; the Mary Buie Museum in Oxford, Mississippi received vital WPA support in 1939; and the Walker Art Center in Minnesota went from private art gallery to major civic center with WPA funds for classes in 1939.
For each of these, the WPA extolled that "the root of the community art center idea is participation by the entire community in all forms of art experience."
Michelle Herman: One of the greatest success stories for a WPA art center comes from Chicago where the south side community art center continues to serve as a beacon for inspiration and local talent.
Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs was a Chicago-based painter and long-term director of the South Side Community Art Center. Here's how she described its setup in her 1988 interview:
Margaret Burroughs: We were informed that the WPA, the Federal Arts Project, would assist us in setting up an art center, cultural center, in our community. It was to be one of some fifty-odd centers set up throughout the country in inner-city neighborhoods. If the community committee could find and purchase a building, the Federal Art Project would staff it and pay the salaries and the operational expenses.
And so that committee did get together and formed a search committee to find a building. They found a building, which was the old Comiskey mansion, across the street at 3831 South Michigan Avenue. They were able to purchase it for the sum of twelve thousand dollars. In those days many of these mansions...the white owners who were fleeing them.
They were selling them complete with furniture. So then these large houses were taken over by Black people who cut them up into smaller apartments and things like that. The WPA paid the money to renovate and redesign the Comiskey mansion, and it turned out to be the only gallery—and I guess it's still the only gallery–functional gallery–in the Black community in either the South Side or West Side.
We had classrooms and a ceramic room and an auditorium on the third floor. It opened in 1941, and it has been operating continuously—sometimes on a high level but sometimes it just drags along. Low valleys and high mountains. But in 1991 it will celebrate its fiftieth year of continuous operation, and I think that's probably a record for any Black cultural institution in the United States.
Ben Gillespie: These centers are stalwart reminders of the WPA's lasting influence in the community, as well as the community's commitment to the arts in turn.
Barbara Bernstein, creator of the New Deal Art Registry, told us about other New Deal legacies hiding in plain sight.
Barbara Bernstein: some people say that the New Deal art projects were a dead end and really never led anywhere. Because as you know, Abstract expressionism sort of took over and representational art–like the WPA did–sort of went out of fashion pretty quickly by the early 50s, and it's true that none of the New Deal artists very few of them became the really famous artists of the next generation, but these were the people who became our teachers and who started community art shows and community art centers. And you know, summer art fairs. And I think they had an outsized influence, not in the, you know, New York, high priced art gallery world, but in the community art world. So the fact that Redwood City, where I now live, has this open-air art fair every summer. That's a direct legacy of the New Deal.
Ben Gillespie: The cultivation of art as an integral part of life throughout the nation, and not just the realm of the elite, has had long-lasting implications. For many, the works created during the WPA are points of pride in and of themselves and continue to serve as significant representations of their communities.
Michelle Herman: Charlotte Partridge led an art school in Racine, Wisconsin, and directed the Wisconsin public Works of Art Project during the 1930s–all while building a career as a world leader in socially engaged art education. Her approach emphasized outreach and engagement over academicism and she had the opportunity to visit several public art installations. In her 1965 oral history, she described one particularly memorable site.
Charlotte Partridge: And some little town on the coast in Southern California...they had a mural in their post office, and the day I was there, the flies were terrific, everywhere. It was hot, so hot, uncomfortable. The sun was blazing. The post office was not in the center of stores, a little way from it, and the expanse of sand around it. And the postmaster was proud to have somebody come from the East to see it, and he said, "It's the greatest thing that ever happened to us here but, you know, we're beginning to get worried." I said, "What about?" He said, "The flies. The flies are specking it up. What can you do for it?" Well, I had forgotten what some practical things I gave, but I said, "I'll try to find out how to protect that thing, an inexpensive way if I can." So that's something I had to do for them, you know.
Michelle Herman: The lasting influence of the WPA and concerns over how to preserve, maintain, and sustain its legacy were on many artists’ minds in the 1960s. Sergeant Johnson, a sculptor whose career started in New York City before fully blooming in the Bay Area,
talks about what the project meant for him personally and historically in his 1964 interview with Mary McChesney.
Mary McChesney: What kind of influence do you think the government's sponsorship of you as a sculptor?
Sargent Johnson: Yeah, the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a more of an incentive to keep on working, where the time things were pretty dreary and I thought of getting out of it because, you know, I come from a family of people who thought all artists were drunkards and everything else. And so I felt like giving it up at one time, but I think the WPA helped me to stay
Mary McChesney: What would you think of the idea of the government in America beginning sponsorship with the arts again?
Sargent Johnson: Oh, I'd be all for it. I think it's one of the greatest things. They should sponsor the artists. At the time, they were going to sponsor it...the government, not as the WPA but I think something like it. They would be given jobs and paid for it.
Ben Gillespie: Mary Dill Henry, a west coast painter, describes her experience similarly in a 1964 interview:
Mary Dill Henry: Well I've always felt that it was the most fabulous experience as far as I'm concerned in fact I considered it at the time a graduate course in art because where else could you learn how to make mosaics and watch thing glass windows being made I mean there was anything else like it in the country there weren't any schools teaching these things. Absolutely I knew that I was in heaven as an artist at this time and I appreciated every minute of it I mean learning all of these techniques and having a chance to to paint freely without criticism and to be paid for it to have enough to live on it was a perfect, perfect situation
I think it was a very serious undertaking I think it was there were people there I think that were very appreciative and grateful for the chance they had to do this kind of thing and it was a sort of a sanctuary of artists who could work freely and under marvelous conditions and I think we all did our best I really do. We worked very hard and you sort of inspired one another you know we enjoy each other's work and that gave you a good happy memory of the thing and I lived for the time and this will happen again I really think that anybody who's ever worked on a project feels that it was a very practical solution to the artist problem the financial thing you know.
Ben Gillespie: Solving the money equation in art went beyond supplies and salaries and included rethinking how art reached people in the first place. The WPA was a grand experiment and how art can enrich life for everyone, and a radical experiment and expanding who constituted "everyone." In her 1964 interview, Sacramento arts administrator Olga Burroughs explicitly advocated for a revival and expansion of the New Deal arts blueprint to improve quality of life and culture in the US.
Olga Burroughs: That's why I believe if the government ever felt it would elevate the whole tone of the country to set up art centers throughout the land, they could do so. I think it should be done. I should think that at any time in any community or any city, added funds, and interest, and enthusiasm and overall program would be an excellent thing for any city. I don’t think any city ever fulfills its potential, do you? I think they could be stimulated to do so...stimulated to a greater degree.
Michelle Herman: Today many private and nonprofit organizations work to fund public art, support artists, and raise awareness of the arts through educational campaigns.
Government support still makes or breaks the arts to a significant extent, but the spirit to edify communities through art remains as strong as ever.
We spoke to Kathleen Lynch, Director of Operations at the Art Production Fund about their groundbreaking work to connect people and the art around them and what a renewed commitment government arts funding would mean for her organization.
Kathleen Lynch: Art Production Fund, we're a 501 C 3 nonprofit, based in New York, but we work nationally. And I think for us thinking about the legacy of the New Deal...when you have that federal funding available for arts organizations and you have an administration that really prioritizes the arts, I think that really affects the culture in general and the artwork that's being created. That's something that, we always think about and it's something that I think would be very exciting, for the future of public art.
Ben Gillespie: 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 how her organization approaches public art as a component of everyday life:
Patricia Walsh: I think experimentation is something we've been seeing over the least the past decade, what it means to be experimental in public space. Thinking about different materials, thinking about this notion of temporary, how do we just sort of experiment with something for a little while to see if it makes sense for our community before we commit to something more permanent, we're also seeing a lot of artists that are really getting into what it means to do what is we're broadly called social practice work. But this notion of having an artist create, a community engagement process and really understand what that means for an artist to be part of that conversation. We're seeing where planning departments, we'll bring in an artist; the artists are allowed them to look at data, look at the different materials in the sites and give their like very creative perspective to things which allows for more creative responses for how these projects are starting to unfold.
We are seeing, of course, artists do, traditional, they come in, they create an art object and that happens, but we're also seeing this more artists involved with the process to be more part of the engagement or to rethink how a system is being, being developed or implemented.
To me, it's not about the art standing outside of things; I think it's about how is it being incorporated as part of everything else. So how do we make sure that the arts are allowed to be funded or are funded through all these different, initiatives that the federal government moves on?
So to me, that's, it's that more incorporation than it is about the arts over here and everybody else over here.
Ben Gillespie: On the practical side, Kathy Vargas described the shifts she's seen in her career as a photographer.
Kathy Vargas: There used to be a lot more grants for artists. I remember sitting on the panel somewhere in Maryland to select work. I had Dred Scott on one hand, and I had Patrick Nakatani on the other, and I was the person in the middle trying to figure out where to give money: whether to give it to the more quote-unquote artsy looking work or whether to give it to the more reality-based work, the documentary work. Those grants aren't there anymore. We need those grants back. Nobody ever stands up for artists, and I feel so sad because once the first Bush presidency took them away because of the censorship issues, I expected Clinton to bring them back, he didn't. Laura Bush brought back a little bit, but not enough. This is no longer a partisan issue, this is, this is a national issue. We need those voices
Ben Gillespie: Organizations like the Living New Deal have grown organically to flesh out history and bring resources together, and the passion of its team comes through as they preserve and steward the legacies of the New Deal. Here's Richard Walker again, Executive director of the Living New Deal:
Richard Walker: Actually, it's a great moment for the Living New Deal. We are a non-profit, we're a historical project and educational project, but, we feel that we know an immense amount now about the New Deal–in some ways more than anyone–and we have something to offer for the present moment. It's very important to remember all that the New Deal did, how much it rested on a moral vision, as well as political calculation. How much it rested on public service as well as simply economic revival and how much it, it rested on serving the, all the people and not just on, quick and easy fixes for the financial system or whatever problem it might be. So on many, many levels, the New Deal offers a model for today.
Ben Gillespie: And here's Gray Brechin, founder and now project scholar of the Living New Deal, on the bottom line of the New Deal:
Gray Brechin: It was about public health and the widest possible dimension. Not just physical health but also psychological, health and the arts are critical to that. As well as the freedom from want and from fear that is security that everybody needs in order to develop their full potentiality. And so that's I think what the New Deal art projects were just a part of. But a very important part
Michelle Herman: When the Archives began its oral history collection, its team of more than 20 interviewers scoured the nation and used word of mouth to find the artists, administrators, assistants, curators, educators, tradespeople, and everyone else who made the New Deal happen. Some of the interviewers, like Sylvia Loomis, had served on the project themselves, while others came to it only knowing the works they'd seen and the tales they'd heard. Over the course of several years, they amassed a volume of interviews at no point having the full picture of the projects. What they did learn was that their founding mission to preserve and promote understanding of the visual arts in the United States of America had been profoundly shaped by those efforts.
Here is Sylvia Loomis in a 1964 conversation with Nina Perera Collier, an arts administrator who championed cultural enrichment programs for young people in New York, Maryland, and New Mexico. In the interview, they discuss the need to study the success of the new deal arts initiatives. Not only to appreciate how they changed the United States but also how they might be adapted anew:
Nina Perera Collier: it's I think a wonderful thing that an organization is now going to concern itself with revealing the true facts and discovering what enormous strides were made in those times.
Sylvia Loomis: Well, think that it certainly is one of the purposes of this survey. Is to find out just what did happen and the effect that it had on the whole field of art in America, the impetus that it gave it. Several people have said that artists have said that they think that it was the reason why the whole, art movement shifted from Europe to America. New York is more the art center than, then Paris, which had always used to be, and that if it had not been for the impetus given by the Federal art projects, this would not have happened on the contrary that, that even those artists who were good would have been in such desperate straits financially, that they would have had to do something else.
So it was lost even what little we'd had.
Nina Perera Collier: Yes, I think that's absolutely true. And if this story can be told vividly, I think it will be a tremendous contribution, but there has been my mind no really forceful complete study been published. And many young people had this opportunity, through the New Deal were able, and given were able to express their ideas and given, the confidence of their superiors. And this was to my mind, an extraordinary opportunity.
I thought it was absolutely extraordinary that, with the really the excuse of a relief administration and the catastrophe of a Depression, that's such a marvelously creative. Movement should have developed. And of course, I'm one of those that feel that a government should subsidize arts and should create opportunities for the arts.
The time of the patron of art has gone, the time when the artist can be subsidized by private means is very precarious. I think we could give more help to universities to have more great art teachers, we could do the same sort of stimulation to artists and to creative people, poets, and writers. And it shouldn't have to depend only on Ford and Rockefeller Foundations to give a lift to the...but there should be governmental monies available because it's just like training for professionals in the field of science; it's very expensive and very hard for artists to have a chance to get training or to express themselves
because they have to eat, and they very often have to take jobs which prevent them from pursuing their careers.
Ben Gillespie: These efforts to sustain and preserve the arts, in turn, bolster and even generate their communities. Mildred Constantine, a curator who worked with architecture, design, and textiles at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, describes the context for the New Deal's achievements in her 1965 oral history.
Mildred Constantine: This was a phenomenon in our lives, and only I suppose only a catastrophe like the Depression could yield a phenomenon. I mean look today we face a disaster whether it’s a town being wiped out because of floods in our own country, or a Skopje being ruined by earthquake. We face a disaster by producing a phenomenon that we never would have produced. And I look upon the projects and the things that grew out of the Depression the same way.
Ben Gillespie: To end her 1988 oral history, Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs, the long-time director of the Chicago South Side Community Art Center, recited a poem she wrote that celebrates teaching the past to better the future, entitled "What shall I tell my children who are Black." Here are the closing lines:
[Music begins to play, plays through outro to end of episode]
Margaret Burroughs: And I will tell them of a black people upon whose backs have been built, the wealth of three continents, Europe, Africa, and America. I will tell them this and more, and their heritage shall be their weapon and their armor. Their Black heritage will make them strong enough to win any battle they may face.
And since the story is often obscured and omitted, I must sacrifice to find it for my children, even as a sacrifice to feed clothe and shelter them. This I will do for them if I love them. No one else will do it for me. I must find the truth of heritage for myself and pass it on to them. And in years to come, I believe because I have armed them with the truth, my children and their children's children will venerate me for it is the truth that will make our people free.
Michelle Herman: For show notes, work cited, and additional resources visit aaa.si.edu/articulated.
This podcast is produced by Ben Gillespie and Michelle Herman from the Smithsonian Archives of American art.
Audio engineering is by Hannah Hethmon of BetterLemon Creative Audio.
Our music comes from Sound and Smoke composed by Viet Cuong and performed by the Peabody Wind Ensemble with Harlan Parker conducting.
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 aaa.si.edu/support. Thank you.