Art & Culture Projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) (1934)

Between April 1934 and July 1935, the Work Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) funded a large number of art projects across the nation, employing formerly jobless actors, musicians, artists, and others. Some of the projects were carryovers from the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), such as an ongoing orchestra or a partially-completed mural, and others were entirely new. And, it should be recalled, both the CWA and PWAP had been partly funded by FERA [1].

Art projects seeking federal assistance were designed, sponsored, and partially funded by local communities and governments. If a project was approved by a state relief administrator, its funding would then be completed by FERA [2]. Jacob Baker, a top administrator in FERA (and later the WPA), explained the philosophy behind the New Deal’s support for the arts: “It has been recognized that when an artist or musician is hungry he is just as hungry as a bricklayer and has the same right that a bricklayer has to be employed at his own trade. For the first time in our history, our government has become a patron of the arts, officially and quite unashamedly” [3].

Across the nation, 11,000 dramatic performances were funded through FERA. These performances employed over 2,300 actors, directors, designers, and other theater workers, and offered new experiences to Americans who, because of cost or location, did not normally enjoy such entertainment. By the end of the FERA program, over 5 million people had witnessed performances, including Shakespeare, vaudeville, “stunt nights,” and puppet shows for children. There were ethnic acting groups, including African American, Yiddish, and Italian; acting troupes that went to hospitals and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps; and lessons in public speaking, dance, and children’s theater at community recreation centers [4].

FERA also helped employ over 6,000 musicians whose careers and livelihoods had been derailed by the Great Depression. These musicians gave performances to over 10 million Americans. There were, for example, “community sings” in Alabama; an African American quartet in California; dance orchestras in Connecticut; a symphony orchestra in Georgia; choral groups in Indiana; chamber music in New York; and bands for children in North Dakota [5].

Nearly 1,000 jobless painters, sculptors, and other visual artists were assisted by FERA. In exchange for a paycheck, these artists completed at least 94 sculptures, 428 frescoes and murals, 725 drawings and etchings, and 2,523 easel paintings – all for the decoration of public places. In Florida, FERA art was used to promote tourism; in Vermont, FERA posters were used for health education in schools; and in the dome of Utah’s state capitol, “one of the outstanding accomplishments… [was] a number of large murals portraying the development of the state by the Mormon Pioneers” [6]. Some of the art funded by FERA, like the Salt Lake City murals, can still be seen today.

Shortly after the FERA ceased activities in 1935, unemployed artists, musicians, and theater workers found more opportunities for work under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) [7].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., Federal Emergency Relief Administration, “The Emergency Work Relief Program of the FERA, April 1, 1934 – July 1, 1935,” pp. 103-116, available to view at http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924092390727;view=1up;seq=2 (accessed February 23, 2016). (2) Ibid., pp. 10-12. Normally, the local sponsor was expected to pay for material and equipment costs, and also some percentage of labor costs. As a general rule, the more funds a local sponsor could contribute to the project the greater the likelihood of FERA approval, “unless these considerations were outweighed by those of social importance or of putting more men to work” (from note on p. 10). (3) Jacob Baker, “Work-Relief: The Program Broadens,” New York Times, November 11, 1934. (4) See note 1, pp. 108-111 and 121. (5) Ibid., pp. 103-108 and 121. (6) Ibid., pp. 111-116 and 121. (7) See our summaries of TRAP, Federal Project Number One, and other New Deal art programs at https://livingnewdeal.org/what-was-the-new-deal/programs/.