(renamed WPA Art Program, 1939)
Developed in July and August of 1935, the Federal Art Project (FAP) became one of five programs under Federal Project Number One (itself part of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA). It was created “to provide work relief for artists in various media – painters, sculptors, muralists and graphic artists, with various levels of experience” . FAP was funded directly by the federal government and operated nationwide until 1939.
The FAP sponsored many types of art projects: art and handicrafts for public places, including oil paintings, water colors, etchings, sculptures, mosaics, stained glass, wall murals, lithographs, woodcuts, tapestries, curtains, rugs, ceramics, ironwork, furniture, and more; posters for public education and civic engagement (the famous WPA posters); the Index of American Design, which created thousands of color drawings of “decorative and applied arts” from the nation’s founding to the end of the 1800s; art education, in which artists were paid to teach the public in “print making, metal crafts, pottery, puppet making, weaving, and costume design” and more; and art centers and galleries where the public could enjoy art exhibitions and take courses in art appreciation .
The purpose of the art produced under the FAP, like the art produced under other New Deal programs, frequently extended beyond decoration and education. One scholar argues that New Deal art was frequently intended to “inspire civic feeling,” uplift the national spirit, promote social justice, and even encourage people to create their own works of art: “[New Deal art administrators] encouraged people, regardless of their formal training, to create novel works of art and to recognize the originality in what they made” . In sum, New Deal art was intended to be a shared national experience.
As might be expected, FAP works of art that promoted social justice, challenged political beliefs, or threatened cultural norms, were seized upon by critics of the New Deal and used as fuel for the argument that the New Deal was bad for America or, at the very least, that art projects should not be funded with taxpayer money. Furthermore, several works of art that depicted controversial topics were destroyed by local officials uninterested in or fearful of radical, depressing, or “un-American” subject matter.
Surprisingly, FAP survived the termination Federal Project Number One in 1939, renamed the “Work Projects Administration Art Program” . From this point on, it was no longer only a federal program, but one that required local sponsors to contribute funds just like any other WPA project .
Holger Cahill directed the Federal Art Project and WPA Art Program during its entire existence  and supervised the completion of an enormous volume of work, including 2,500 murals, 18,000 sculptures, 22,000 plates for the Index of American Design, and 108,000 easel works (e.g., oil and water color paintings) . A significant amount of this work has been lost over time, and the U.S. General Services Administration, realizing the value of the art to the nation, has been trying to locate, recover, and inventory it since 2001 .
Sources: (1) “Federal Art Project,” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/newdeal/fap.html, accessed June 4, 2015. (2) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 64. (3) Sharon Ann Musher, Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015 (see generally, and find quote on p. 147). (4) “Legal Title to Art Work Produced Under the 1930s and 1940s New Deal Administration,” U.S. General Services Administration, http://www.gsa.gov/graphics/pbs/legal_fact_sheet_final_I.pdf, accessed June 4, 2015. (5) See note 2, at p. 63. (6) Eleanor Mahoney, “The Federal Art Project in Washington State,” The Great Depression in Washington State Project, University of Washington, http://depts.washington.edu/depress/FAP.shtml, accessed June 4, 2015. (7) See note 2, at p. 65. (8) See, e.g., Ed O’Keefe, “GSA seeks to recover artwork produced in New Deal project,” Washington Post, June 7, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/06/AR2010060603938.html, accessed June 6, 2015, and “New Deal Artwork: GSA’s Inventory Project,” U.S. General Services Administration, http://www.gsa.gov/portal/content/101384, accessed June 6, 2015.
Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.
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