The WPA Murals: State of the Art
Cue the theme song to “The Waltons” because we’re traveling back to1935. Allow me to set the stage for you: In Walton’s Mountain terms, those quaint old moonshine making spinsters, the Baldwin ladies, were busy churning out jar after jar of the recipe. On and off of Walton’s Mountain, the U.S. had been smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression of 1929. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had been going strong since 1933 and his “alphabet soup” of recovery programs was continually being stirred to reveal more noodle letters.
The government’s previous attempts at providing relief to starving artists had fallen flat. There had been the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which lasted from 1933-34, and the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture (TDSPS), which was created in late1934. After the they flopped, there was doubt as to whether or not the government should be involved in the creation of art, on any level. But some U.S. politicians still had the vision of merging art and patriotism. So in the spring of 1935, President Roosevelt started yet another alphabet program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which funded a division called the Federal Art Program (FAP), with the goal of creating jobs for unemployed artists to beautify the country and to inspire Americans with patriotic works of art. Yes, while John Boy Walton was sitting up in his room writing in his notebooks about his family and contemplating that giant mole on his cheek, some fortunate artists were being put to work.
Nice Work If You Can Get It
It only took a few months before more than 1,100 artists were working for the Mural Division of the Federal Art Program. While the WPA’s Arts Programs employed more than 40,000 artists, including painters, writers, dancers, musicians, actors, and photographers, it is the Mural Division we’re going to focus on today.
In order for artists to be considered for the Mural Division, they had to confirm they were impoverished. It was lucky for the American public that future notable artists such as Jackson Pollock, , Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Thomas Hart Benton could be confirmed as impoverished! After they were officially declared starving, the artists then had to submit samples of their work. Approved artists received a stipend of $24 per week. So they packed up their brushes and oil paints and set off to paint the towns and cities of the U.S.A.
According to the guidelines set forth, qualified workers were not to be discriminated against for any reason. That meant there were women and minority artists. Shocking! There were also artists whose political views were more progressive than most of the folks living on Walton’s Mountain and in real life locations across the country. That was even more shocking!
- It was the work of Diego Rivera, and the Mexican Muralist Movement, which first provided inspiration for Roosevelt’s program. Diego Rivera was one of the leaders of the Mexican labor movement of the 1920s. He was a member of the Communist party whose murals often included a tax on the church and capitalism. Though his political views didn’t scream, “red, white and blue,” he was commissioned to paint a mural of monumental proportions for Henry Ford. The Rockefellers also commissioned him to paint a mural for the lobby of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center.
- Surprisingly, even though the Federal Art Project was about providing work for down and out Americans, not all of the artists were Americans. It wasn’t until the summer of 1937 that the government announced all WPA workers had to be U.S. citizens. It was that declaration that prompted Armenian born Arshile Gorky to become as American as Uncle Sam.
- Even though some of the world’s greatest abstract artists painted murals for the WPA, the project favored a realistic, representational style. So, don’t expect to find a Pollock mural in the classic drip-style gracing some Post Office wall in Idaho.
Workers in Progress
WPA murals went up in a variety of federal buildings, including libraries, schools, hospitals, courthouses, and post offices. Many WPA artists paid tribute to the American worker and the grandeur of the nation’s landscape. After all, it was their job to lift the spirits of citizens who were feeling the effects of the Great Depression. And while some probably were not as uplifting as Ma Baldwin’s apple pie recipe, that was because they told the truth about America. Some were uncomfortably factual and realistic, and some told a story that was politically charged and idealistic, garnering criticism by conservatives who didn’t think the government had any business funding such programs.
In 1934, when muralists at San Francisco’s Coit Tower featured images of the Russian newspaper, The Daily Worker, and Karl Marx’s book, Das Kapital, it did not fare at all well with the locals. There was one mural that featured an impoverished family panning for gold as an affluent family watched them from the sidelines. People were so outraged that Coit Tower was kept closed for weeks.
State of the Art
Of the 2,500 murals created by the WPA, approximately one third of them have been lost. How do you lose a mural? Well, many of them were simply painted over. While many of the murals were painted directly onto walls, others were painted on canvas, which were then attached to walls. In short, any missing canvas murals, which have survived, could be absolutely anywhere.
In a cringe-worthy turn of events, the government auctioned off thousands of WPA-funded paintings in December of 1943. At a warehouse in Queens, New York, paintings were sold by the pound. My word! Can you imagine waving your auction paddle to purchase three pounds of Jackson Pollock’s? A New York plumber purchased a wad of the canvas paintings to wrap his pipes for insulation. One can only imagine what treasures were lost.
Job Well Done
Besides the 2,500 murals, WPA artists completed 1,700 sculptures, 108,000 easel paintings, and 240,000 art prints and posters in the program’s eight-year existence. In 1939, the project began scaling back, laying off some of its artists. By 1943, employment was on an upswing, thanks to WWII. There no longer seemed to be a need for a program designed for the purpose of providing employment opportunities to artists, and the WPA and its Federal Arts Project ended.
Postscript/Good Night, John Boy
In a noteworthy postscript, a 1975 agreement between the U.S. Postal Service and the Smithsonian Institution made provisions to protect all existing WPA murals: They were to be relocated to the museum when a post office closed or moved, but the works of art would still remain federal property. Cue the ending music. Good night, John Boy. Good night, Mary Ellen. Good night, Grandpa. Good night, Federal Arts Program. Fade to black.