Holger Cahill (c.1890-1960)

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Holger Cahill was the director of the WPA federal art programs from their beginnings in July 1935 to their termination in June 1943 [1]. Cahill believed that the use of art had been corrupted by modern society & the art market, and that the WPA could begin to reverse that by bringing art to the people. As head of the Federal Art Project (FAP, 1935-1939) and its successor, the WPA Art Program (1939-1943), Cahill oversaw the production of an enormous body of artworks, including 2,500 murals, 18,800 sculptures, and 108,000 easel works (e.g., paintings & drawings), all destined for public places such as schools, civic buildings, hospitals, and parks. The federal art programs also offered free art classes to children and adults, held exhibitions and conducted historical surveys (e.g., the Index of American Design) [6]. 

Sources vary on Cahill’s birth. The New York Times obituary declared that he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota around 1893, “of Icelandic parentage” [3], while the Smithsonian Institution states that he was born “in a small valley near the Arctic Circle [in Iceland], on January 13, 1887” [4]. Cahill suffered through hardship during his younger years, including a broken family and drifting from one menial job to another. Nevertheless, a combination of hard work and perseverance eventually paid off. He started working for the Newark Museum in 1921 and then the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1932. He also began a writing career and had his first novel, Profane Earth, published in 1927. Over the next 30 years, he would write and edit many books, including short stories, novels, biographies, art surveys, and fiction [5].

Cahill held strong views on the fate of art in American society: “We have subordinated art to our desire to pile up personal possessions, to our interest in conspicuous display and conspicuous waste. We have subordinated art to our consuming passion for commercial success, to our materialistic will-to-power. We have subordinated art to our love of rivalry, our passion to outdo others in competitive activity and we have subjected it further to the whims of social snobbery, the erratic interests of dilettantism, to arbitrary judgments and irresponsible criticism. And in doing so we have helped to push art from its honorable place as a vital necessity of everyday life and have made of it a luxury product intended for the casual enjoyment of jaded wealth. And wealth has practically stopped demanding the product since the great depression” [2].

Cahill later recalled the support the WPA art projects received from New Deal leadership. He gave ultimate credit to Harry Hopkins for creating the program, saying, “Hopkins was an extremely powerful person in almost everything he did. He was a very remarkable man and I must say that I have the deepest affection for him.” On the Roosevelts, Cahill recalled: “Well, the one thing I can say for Roosevelt above everything, that during the seven and a half years that I ran that project it was attacked by everybody under the sun. There was a dead cat coming through the window every few minutes. And never once in that whole period of seven and a half years did I have a word of criticism come from the White House, either from the president or from Mrs. Roosevelt. They were both interested” [7].

Holger Cahill died on July 8, 1960, survived by “his wife, the former Dorothy Canning Miller; a daughter by a previous marriage, Mrs. Jane Ann Blumenfeld of Albuquerque, N.M., and two grandchildren” [8]. 


(1) “Four Will Direct Arts Work Relief,” New York Times, July 27, 1935; also see note 4 below. (2) “Federal Aid Held Vital To Spur Art,” New York Times, December 19, 1937. (3) “Holder Cahill, 67, Art Expert, Dies,” New York Times, July 9, 1960. 4) “Holger Cahill papers, 1910-1993, bulk 1910-1960,” Smithsonian Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/holger-cahill-papers-6730/more, accessed December 21, 2015. (5) See notes 3 and 4. (6) See, e.g., Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 64-65. (7) “Oral history interview with Holger Cahill, 1960 April 12 and 15,” Smithsonian Archives of American Art,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-holger-cahill-11990, accessed December 21, 2015. (8) See note 3.

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