April 2022

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

America’s Portfolio

Artists of the Harlem Renaissance at 306 West 141st Street, New York City

Artists of the Harlem Renaissance at 306 West 141st Street, New York City
Back row, left to right: Add Bates; unidentified; James Yeargans; Vertis Hayes; Charles Alston; Sollace Glenn; unidentified; Elba Lightfoot; Selma Day; Ronald Joseph; Georgette Seabrooke; — Reid. Front row, left to right: Gwendolyn Knight; unidentified; Francisco Lord; unidentified; unidentified. Copyright The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, ARS, New York. Courtesy, Phillipscollection.org.

Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA’s Federal Art Project hired more than 10,000 artists on “relief.” They produced murals, easel paintings, sculpture, posters, photographs, theater sets and arts and crafts. Though many have been lost, FAP artworks can be still be found in schools, hospitals, libraries and other public buildings, and in museums around the world. Initially, few African-American artists were allowed to join the WPA’s programs. Black artists in New York City formed the Harlem Artists Guild (1935–41) and successfully pressured the WPA to hire an unprecedented number of Black artists.
WPA-funded art centers like the Harlem Community Art Center and “the 306” provided work space for artists and welcomed the public to exhibits and classes, bringing art and artists into the lives of everyday Americans.

 

In this Issue:


Audio Archaeology

FAP Art Sold as Scrap

FAP Art Sold as Scrap
New York curio shop owner Henry Roberts shows one of hundreds of FAP easel paintings he offered for sale at prices from $3 to $44 in 1944. He obtained the artworks from a scrap dealer who had purchased a job lot of “junk canvas” at a government surplus sale. Courtesy, LOC.gov Prints & Photos Division.

Like artifacts from a lost civilization, oral histories conducted by the Archives of American Art (AAA) in 1964-1965 have kept alive the thoughts and memories of New Deal artists, craftspeople and administrators for those of us in their future.

The interviews, conducted more than two decades after the New Deal’s art programs were dissolved, constitute an invaluable supplement to the vast body of material culture that these government-commissioned artists produced. Like the famous slave narratives gathered by the WPA’s Federal Writers Project from 1936 to 1938, the interviews with New Deal artists and administrators constitute an audio archaeology of those who have since passed on.

The Archives of American Art (AAA) was founded in Detroit in 1954 and ten years later launched an oral history initiative to document the arts programs of the Roosevelt administration. The AIA moved to Washington, D.C. in 1970 to become a unit of the Smithsonian Institution.  

“The abrupt termination of the projects and the situation in Washington during the war made an orderly gathering together of the results of the projects impossible,” an article in the Archives’ Journal at the time explained.  “We undertook the study because we believe that this is an area of America’s cultural history which is badly in need of clarification and that the time is right for a thorough, objective study of the New Deal and its art projects.”

Beating the Chinese, “History of San Francisco,” by Anton Refregier, 1941
Conservatives in Congress wanted the mural series destroyed. Courtesy, LOC.

Time was of the essence thirty years after the federal art projects began. Many of the records and artworks had by then been scattered or burned. Some of those who had worked in the art projects had already died, but many were still in middle age and were cogent, opinionated and eager to pass on what they remembered.

Through the interviews one can hear the voices of of FSA photographers Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, CCC artist and architect Victor Steinbrueck, Resettlement Administration head Rexford Tugwell, artist and photographer Ben Shahn, sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney and hundreds of other painters, sculptors, administrators and craftspeople.

Last year, the Archives launched an ambitious series of podcasts titled Articulated: Dispatches from the Archives of American Art. The first four episodes produced and narrated by the AAA’s Scholar for Oral History Ben Gillespie and Digital Experience Chief Michelle Herman featured Living New Deal team members Richard Walker, Barbara Bernstein and myself, as well as other scholars and archivists who use the interviews to learn about an unprecedented experiment in public arts patronage.


Sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney appears at her one-woman show at the Artists’ Guild Gallery, San Francisco, 1947. Courtesy, eichlernetwork.com.

The podcasts comprise interviews recorded in homes and studios under less-than-ideal conditions. The subjects are heard over a background of barking dogs, ringing telephones, children and typewriters. Memories that otherwise would have been lost nonetheless live on, captured by astute interviewers who were often themselves artists and even friends of their subjects, sometimes willing to lubricate their conversations with a gifted bottle of scotch.  

I, myself, have used the extensive papers of the New Deal artist Anton Refregier at the AAA to learn more about his intentions for the immense historical cycle he painted for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office in 1946-1947, the last artwork produced under the federal arts programs.

"Artists in WPA," by Moses Soyer, 1935
“Artists in WPA,” by Moses Soyer, 1935. Courtesy, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Employed by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, Refregier considered the 28 murals depicting the history of California his masterpiece, so I also wanted to know his thoughts during an extraordinary 1953 hearing at which reactionary Congressmen sought to destroy the murals for what they asserted were its anti-American content.

The AAA has digitized five minutes of an interview with Refregier, so hearing his Russian-inflected voice at home was like encountering an old friend whom I had never met but knew well.  “Ref” began by advocating for a renewed program of government-sponsored arts for public spaces like those that had once employed him.


Arthur Rothstein, photographer for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration (FSA).
Courtesy, Arthur Rothstein Legacy Project.

For its pioneering 1976 exhibition of New Deal art in California, the DeSaisset Museum at the University of Santa Clara secured an NEH grant to make video recordings of many New Deal artists alive at the time. Copies of those recordings are now in the possession of the AAA, which itself relies on grants and donations to carry on its work of transmitting knowledge to the present and future.

With sufficient funding, the AAA hopes to digitize those recordings so that anyone excavating the cultural archaeology of the New Deal will be able to see, as well as hear, the departed men and women who left the abundance of riches that survives.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

The Harlem Renaissance and the New Deal

Students at Harlem Community Art Center, 1938, By David Robbins

Students at Harlem Community Art Center, 1938, By David Robbins
Courtesy, Archives of American Art. Courtesy, Archives of American Art.

The Harlem Renaissance stands as one of the most important art movements in American history. The years 1918-1937 saw an outpouring of music, theatre, literature and visual art from this historical Black neighborhood in Upper Manhattan.

Federal “relief” dollars employed hundreds of Black visual artists, both on public art projects and as instructors at the WPA-funded community arts centers that nourished the Harlem arts movement.

The Federal Arts Project of the WPA commissioned more than five hundred murals for New York City’s public hospitals. The murals at the Harlem Hospital Center were the first major federal government commissions awarded to African-Americans.

"Mother Goose Fairy Tales" by Selma Day for the children's medical ward, Harlem Hospital, Manhattan, 1938
Courtesy, urbanarchive.org.

These murals by Charles Alston, Vertis Hayes, Elba Lightfoot, Georgette Seabrook, Morgan Smith, Louis Vaughn and Hale Woodruff, commissioned in 1936, depict the evolution from traditional to modern medicine and scenes of Harlem life. After decades of renovations and building changes, some of the murals had all but disappeared. They were rediscovered during a campus modernization project in 2004. Controversial at the time they were painted for their focus on Black life and culture, the murals are now regarded as national treasures. Five of the murals were restored and reinstalled at the hospital in 2005.

Sculptor Augusta Savage led art classes in Harlem, 1938
Photo by Andrew Herman. Courtesy, Federal Art Project Digital Collection.

Other works by Black artists of the WPA include the Harlem River Houses auditorium friezes, Green Pastures and Walls of Jericho, painted by Richmond Barthé in 1937; and the Queens Hospital mural by Georgette Seabrook, completed in 1935. Aspects of Negro Life, a 1934 mural by Aaron Douglas, is still on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a focal point of Harlem’s cultural life.

Harlem’s community art centers served as incubators for many Black artists. Best known is the Harlem Community Art Center (1937-1942). Co-directed by sculptor August Savage and painter Gwendolyn Bennett, both of whom worked for the WPA, the Center opened on December 27,1937, with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attending.

Children’s class at the Harlem Community Art Center, 1939
Photo by Berenice Abbott, Photography Collection, NYPL.

In summarizing the accomplishments of the Harlem Community Art Center, Bennett reported that 70,592 children and adults had participated in classes, lectures and demonstrations during the Center’s first sixteen months.

Teachers included Charles Alston, a painter, sculptor and muralist; James Lesesne Wells, a graphic designer and printmaker who directed the Harlem Art Workshop; Selma Burke, a sculptor and early member of the Harlem Artist Guild; and Henry Bannarn, a painter, sculptor and arts educator. Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence,


Artist Romare Bearden was active in many arts organizations, including the Harlem Artists Guild. Courtesy, Beardenfoundation.org.

Gwendolyn Knight, Norman Lewis, Ernest Crichlow and Marvin Smith also emerged from Harlem’s art centers, including the Harlem Art Workshop, Uptown Art Gallery, the “306,” a converted stables at 306 West 141st Street that became a hub of political discourse, and the Salon of Contemporary Art.

The New Deal years also spawned advocacy groups for Black artists. The Vanguard and the Harlem Artist Guild, for example, successfully campaigned for more Black supervisors to be hired on WPA art projects and for equitable pay with whites.


Artist Aaron Douglas, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, shown with Arthur Schomburg in front of Douglas’s mural “Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers,” 1934. Courtesy, Photographs & Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL.

The New Deal is a model for how both artists and communities can thrive and prosper. It benefitted not only those hired to produce public art but also neighborhood art centers, which contributed to the community cohesion, literacy and vitality that would empower generations to come. 

Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson is a theatre designer, artist and educator in Berkeley, California. She is a founding faculty member of the Visual and Public Art program at Cal State, Monterey Bay.

New Deal Maps

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.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.