Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) (1935)

The Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) was created in August 1935 with special funding provided by the President. It operated as a subdivision of the Procurement Division of the U.S. Treasury, which at that time had principal responsibility for federal buildings. TRAP’s purpose was to employ artists in the decoration of federal and other buildings [1].

The program was modest in size and duration, but accomplished a number of things. First, TRAP gave hope and a paycheck to artists struggling through the Great Depression; the number of artists employed by the program peaked at over 350 during the latter half of 1936, and about 75% of them came from the relief rolls. Second, TRAP beautified “Federal offices and buildings, penal institutions, hospitals, and educational institutions,” with at least 10,000 easel paintings, 89 murals, and 43 sculptures. Third, it performed educational therapy work at federal prisons and “officials of the Bureau of Prisons were favorably impressed by the response manifested by the inmates who participated…” [2].

Interesting examples of TRAP art include: the design of the Navy Expeditionary Medal [3]; two ram sculptures at the entrance to the Byron White U.S. Courthouse in Denver, Colorado; and a bronze relief in a Cooperstown, New York post office depicting James Fenimore Cooper and characters from his book, The Last of the Mohicans [4]. In other areas of the country, TRAP art typically illustrated “scenes of historical events and everyday life” and sometimes promoted “New Deal reformist ideas” [5]. Unfortunately, thousands of paintings and other artworks produced under TRAP have been lost or are hidden away in the basements of federal buildings or museums.

The TRAP program embodied two key philosophies of New Deal policymakers: That artists needed jobs as much as any other types of worker and that art should be experienced – and even created – by all Americans. President Franklin Roosevelt put the latter principal elegantly: “[the American people] have discovered that they have a part. They have seen in their own towns, in their own villages, in schoolhouses, in post offices, in the back rooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors…The people of this country know now, whatever they were taught or thought they knew before, that art is not something just to be owned but something to be made: that it is the act of making and not the act of owning that is art. And knowing this they know also that art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land, but part of the present life of all the living and creating peoples—all who make and build; and, most of all, the young and vigorous peoples who have made and built our present wide country” [6].

Though TRAP was officially terminated during fiscal year 1939 [7], it was, in practical terms, a much shorter-lived program. Less than two years after its creation there was a sharp reduction in the number of artists and, with respect to the remaining artists, “As rapidly as these complete their assignments they will be transferred to other agencies, and the project will be liquidated” [8]. Of the major New Deal art programs, TRAP received the least amount of funding – about $750,000 (or about $12.6 million in 2014 dollars) [9]. Olin Dows and Cecil Jones were the top administrators of TRAP [10].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., “Annual Report of the Treasury,” fiscal year 1936, pp. 182-183. (2) Ibid., and also see “Annual Report of the Treasury,” fiscal year 1937, p. 188, and “Annual Report of the Treasury,” fiscal year 1939, p. 192. There are conflicting totals for the art produced under TRAP in different sources; these are the figures from the Treasury’s annual reports. (3) “Annual Report of the Treasury,” fiscal year 1938, p. 202, and “Navy Expeditionary Medal,” http://www.foxfall.com/csm-navy-nem.htm, Foxfall Medals, accessed July 8, 2015. (4) See our web pages at https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/byron-white-us-courthouse-rocky-mountain-sheep-white-ram-sculpture-denver-co/ and https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/post-office-relief-cooperstown-ny/. (5) Sheila D. Collins and Naomi Rosenblum, “The Democratization of Culture: The Legacy of the New Deal Art Programs,” 2014. In Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg (Ed.), When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 210-211. (6) “Address at the Dedication of the National Gallery of Art” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16091, accessed July 9, 2015. Also see Sharon Ann Musher, Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. (7) “Annual Report of the Treasury,” fiscal year 1939, pp. 191-192. (8) “Annual Report of the Treasury,” fiscal year 1937, p. 188. (9) “Annual Report of the Treasury,” fiscal year 1938, p. 202. (10) See note 5 above, and also footnotes 27 and 28 in “Legal Title to Art Work Produced Under the 1930s and 1940s New Deal Administration,” General Services Administration, http://www.gsa.gov/graphics/pbs/legal_fact_sheet_final_I.pdf, accessed July 9, 2015.  (In this source list, notes of “Annual Report of the Treasury” refer to various editions of the “Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances…” and are available to view at the Internet Archive, http://archive.org/index.php)