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New Deal Art: An Introduction

The New Deal era is one of the most prolific, diverse, and exciting eras of American art production. Federal investment in art and artists was extensive, producing artworks in every state, city, and significant town across the country. The thousands of artworks and art-related activities and events that the Roosevelt administration sponsored were a grand experiment in progressive cultural public policy that reimagined what the country’s relationship to art and artists could be. For the first time in American history, the federal government took the lead nationally in encouraging public art, art exhibition, and art education.

Unlike prior eras of American art, artists commissioned by New Deal art programs did not primarily cater to the urban elites who had always wielded control over the art market and allied cultural institutions. New Deal programs patronized art that was meaningful, accessible, and owned by the American people, thereby interrupting a pattern of favoritism towards white male artists working in urban centers. The programs deliberately funded a diverse cohort of practicing artists and required that they cater to a wide-ranging public audience.

Between 1933 and 1943, the federal government, rather than elite art collectors and institutions, became the largest patron of contemporary art in the world. Sadly, funds were not allocated to ensure this widely dispersed collection’s upkeep nor to protect its ownership by the American people. As a result, a significant portion of the New Deal’s federal art collection has been mismanaged, neglected, lost, or deliberately removed from the public trust.

The defining feature of New Deal art is not a particular style but the social conditions under which it was created. It was part of federal unemployment programs created to combat the misery that millions of jobless Americans were experiencing during the Great Depression. This federal investment in American art began as an experiment with the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), launched in December 1933. In just five months, this pilot program hired almost 14,000 artists and produced over 15,000 works. Its success led to further temporary funding for the arts through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in 1934, the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) in 1935-38, and, most famous of all, the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1935-43. In addition, the New Deal funded a program through the Treasury Department, called the Treasury Department’s Fine Arts Section (Section), which hired artists to decorate federal buildings and US post offices.

Here are the various programs and agencies dates of operation and links to further data:

1933-34: The Public Works of Art Program (PWAP)

1934-35: Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)

1935-38: Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP)

1935-42: The Federal Art Project (FAP)

1934-43: Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (Section)

Two federal agencies managed the bulk of public art production during the New Deal era. They were the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (Section) and the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (FAP/WPA), which had quite different outlooks on the purpose of federal investment in public art. The Section mostly kept to the traditional practice of commissioning fine art through fiercely competitive processes, while the WPA’s Federal Art Project offered unemployed artists much needed relief. As Harry Hopkins, director of FERA and the WPA famously said, artists “need to eat, too.”

Holger Cahill (1887-1960), who managed the Federal Art Project (FAP), believed large-scale production and mass participation should be the goal of federally sponsored art, which translated into the creation of a truly diverse cohort of New Deal artists and art production in every state that ranges widely in quality, style, size, subject matter, fame, etc. All in all, taxpayer money allocated for FAP art projects produced more than 2,500 murals, 17,000 sculptures, 100,000 easel paintings, 11,000 designs; operated more than 100 community art centers; generated 20,000 illustrations of American crafts and design; made thousands of posters, photographs, textiles, ceramics, other decorative arts and objects; and carried out related events and activities.

Edward Bruce (1879-1943), who managed the Treasury Section, held a different view. He believed that the public should be given access to “good art,” and that artists commissioned to produce work for the Section had to meet more stringent technical and aesthetic guidelines. The Treasury Section produced painting and sculpture for more than 1,000 towns across the country, providing many Americans without prior access to public art with what Bruce considered “original” and “good” art, determined by juries who awarded commissions through blind review of artists’ proposals. During the New Deal era, Section commissions were considered more prestigious because they were competitive and paid better. However, they required unpaid investment of time and labor from prospective artists, who had to submit detailed designs and drawings without a guarantee of receiving pay for their creative labor.

Although they existed for only a decade, the legacy of the New Deal art programs has been much greater than the sheer volume of public artworks left to posterity. First, New Deal art programs extended access to the arts throughout the country, cutting across the rural-urban divides and other social barriers. Second, they expanded exponentially the number of people working as artists and art educators, demonstrating that making and teaching art can be a valuable form of public service across the country. Third, they set a precedent for federal investment in and sponsorship of the arts that eventually resulted in further federal legislation supporting the arts.

In the 1960s, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, following in the wake of John. F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy’s support for the arts, led the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts (1965), National Endowment for the Humanities (1965), Corporation for Public Broadcasting (1967), American Film Institute (1967), Hirschhorn Museum (1966), and an executive order transferring ownership of the Renwick Gallery to the Smithsonian to create a center for contemporary art (1965). In the 1970s, visionary cultural public policy experts in San Francisco and other cities used community service funding available from the federal government under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in the 1970s. More recently, the federal government offered unemployment relief-funding for artists affected by the Covid-19 pandemic under the American Rescue Plan (2020s)

Since 2009, the Living New Deal has been documenting New Deal sites and artworks across the country and mapping more New Deal art sites than any other organization has attempted. Our Advocating for New Deal Art Initiative, launched in 2023, builds on our past work of drawing attention to undocumented and endangered New Deal art. Partnering with scholars, curators, collectors, artists, administrators, and other professional allies, the initiative considers what more can and should be done to study, collect, preserve, and teach New Deal visual art and its history to current and future students and lifelong learners. We see our initiative as an opportunity to grow interest in New Deal art history and to promote further investment in public funding for the arts today.

The initiative’s priorities are as follows:

  1. Form community and a network of New Deal art scholars and specialists
  2. Host in-person and virtual events featuring members of this networked community
  3. Create new open-access educational content for the Living New Deal website
  4. Partner with individuals and organizations to promote New Deal art, its complex legacy and preservation.
  5. Connect New Deal art and legacy institutions to later federally funded art projects and art institutions that continue to impact contemporary art practice today

Have you explored if any New Deal art survives in your community? Search our national New Deal Map to find buildings, artworks, and other New Deal heritage in your state and community!

Living New Deal. Still Working for America.