America Needs a Federal Scholars Project

Poster for the American Guide Series

Poster for the American Guide Series
Like the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, a Federal Scholars Project could support intellectual and cultural production today.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The humanities and social sciences in the United States today are on the verge of collapse. After forty years of austerity and disinvestment in higher education, more than 75 percent of the teaching in America’s colleges and universities is done by part-time adjunct instructors paid abysmally low salaries. A generation of younger scholars are at risk of being shut out of viable careers, representing a tremendous loss to our society and culture.

The Great Depression offers not only an historical example of direct public employment for members of America’s creative class, but also lessons for making it happen. Just as the New Deal provided jobs for thousands of out-of-work writers, artists and performers during the Great Depression, a new jobs program is needed now for scholars who, through the casualization of intellectual labor, find themselves without jobs or precariously employed.

The New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Writers Project (FWP), Federal Theater Project (FTP), and Federal Music Project (FMP) provide useful models. Through these WPA cultural projects, talented young people—including women, ethnic minorities and people from working-class backgrounds—were able to pursue creative careers despite the economic calamity. These initiatives democratized access to culture in another way as well—bringing music, art, and theater to geographically remote or socially marginalized communities—often for the first time.

WPA Historical Records Survey

WPA Historical Records Survey
Employees microfilming documents in New Jersey in 1937.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration

A new federal jobs program hiring young talent in the humanities and social sciences—a Federal Scholars Project—could similarly advance these democratic objectives. Much as the FWP detailed the histories and cultures of various states and cities through its American Guide series, and the FAP created art for the broadest public possible, a direct employment program for the humanities and social sciences would produce teaching, research, scholarly studies and cultural materials as public goods.

Poster for the WPA Federal Art Project’s Community Art Center in Harlem

Poster for the WPA Federal Art Project’s Community Art Center in Harlem
Community-based centers today could host employees of a new Federal Scholars Project along with writers, artists and performers.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

Although the College for All bill now before Congress would help to reverse the long slide into the academic gig economy, a Federal Scholars Project could do even more. Developed in consultation with the New Deal for Higher Education campaign, College for All would make four years of higher education free for most Americans, while requiring that institutions that received new federal funding commit to having 75 percent of all teaching done by full-time, tenure-track faculty within five years. Passage of College for All would be an enormous victory in the struggle to restore the New Deal vision of public goods, but it shouldn’t limit our horizons.

Imagine a Federal Scholars Project that teamed up academic humanists and social scientists with artists, writers and performers to create innovative representations of America’s past, present and future. A Federal Scholars Project could also facilitate the formation of new experimental institutions and sites for the production of knowledge and culture, much as the FAP did in the 1930s by sponsoring the Design Laboratory, the first comprehensive school of modernist design in the United States. Also, employees of the Federal Scholars Project could still be assigned to financially strapped universities and colleges, archives, libraries, museums and other types of community-based cultural centers as a way of providing indirect assistance.

WPA-Sponsored Design Laboratory
Students and faculty at work in the experimental school’s studio in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration

Finally, the New Deal’s cultural projects only came about because unemployed members of the creative class organized to demand jobs. The proponents of the cultural projects succeeded in the 1930s because they were part of a broader social movement—a Popular Front—that included white-collar unions that advocated for racial, ethnic and gender equality and antifascist solidarity in addition to public patronage for culture. Securing a robust federal response to today’s crisis of academic employment will likewise depend on organizing and coalition-building among unions and contemporary movements for social equality and workplace diversity, but it can and must be done. The history of the WPA cultural projects shows us the way.

 

Turning Controversy into Consensus

Olin Dows, 1937

Olin Dows, 1937
Dows painted the post office murals in Rhinebeck and Hyde Park, New York. He served as an administrator for the first New Deal relief program for artists, the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), and later headed the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). Courtesy, Wilderstein Preservation.

The New Deal’s efforts to create jobs extended to thousands of artists on relief. Between 1934 and 1943, several government-sponsored programs dedicated to art and culture sponsored the creation of artworks in public buildings. The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, commissioned more than 1,400 murals in post offices nationwide.

In addition to putting artists to work, the post office murals were seen as a way to boost general morale during hardships of the Great Depression. Many of the murals feature historical depictions of the places in which they reside. Some have sparked controversy for their depictions of race and gender.

The murals at the Rhinebeck, New York, Post Office are the work of (Stephen) Olin Dows (1904-1981), a native of the Hudson River Valley and family friend of FDR.  Dows studied at Harvard and the Yale School of Fine Arts and, significantly, spent the summer of 1929 in Mexico where he met such luminaries as Diego Rivera. 

Dows’ twelve murals at the Rhinebeck Post Office depict over 400 years of the region’s history, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 through the post office’s dedication in 1939.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Enslaved men had been described as “stevedores” in a 1940 brochure about the murals. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

Slavery was common in New York until it was abolished in 1827. Dows’ murals include several images of Blacks that likely were slaves. One mural portrays two men carrying cargo to a waiting sloop. Another shows a man working at a brick kiln. A third shows a youth harvesting corn.

Some Rhinebeck residents questioned whether depictions of enslaved people should remain part of a public mural. Dows’ depictions of Native Americans also came under criticism. When the Regional Office of the Postal Service, citing public concerns, announced last year that it planned to remove or cover the murals, Rhinebeck residents saw an opportunity to open a discussion about racial justice and Black history.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Depictions of Blacks and Native Americans sparked a community dialogue. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

The goal of the community conversation, which was held online owing to the pandemic, was to listen and understand, and not change minds. The participants included local officials and community representatives who adopted guidelines they called, “I say, I see…”  The discussions resulted in an alternative to removing the murals by improving their role as educational artifacts. 

Dows intended the Rhinebeck murals to be educational as well as a celebration of local history. In 1940 he authored a companion brochure explaining the murals panel by panel. When the murals came under threat, Dows’ original brochure became the inspiration for a new brochure that would address the murals’ controversial content.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.
Controversies can arise when New Deal-era murals include imagery considered offensive today. Courtesy, DCHS.

A consensus emerged around the need to provide historical context for the murals. The revised brochure, “Invisible People, Untold Stories” focuses on seven of the murals’ scenes. Under “The Mural Depicts,” text explains that General and Janet Montgomery, shown planting seedlings, settled in Rhinebeck in 1774.  Opposite, under “Source Materials Reveal,” we also learn that 421 of Rhinebeck’s 491 persons of color were enslaved.  In another example, “The Mural Depicts” we see Black “stevedores” at work. Under “Source Materials Reveal” we learn that one enslaved stevedore named Tom was 24 years old in 1799 and stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.  

”Invisible People, Untold Stories”
A community conversation resulted in a booklet that provides historical context for the Rhinebeck murals. Photo by Bill Jeffway.

The brochures are used in local schools, but the booklet is essentially an online tool. A digital kiosk, offering a self-guided educational tool that can be viewed from any touchscreen, is in development. Outreach to tribal representatives has just begun to evaluate the potential for more learning opportunities.

View the booklet, “Invisible People, Untold Stories”

Learn more about endangered New Deal artworks and ways communities and institutions can respond.

The New Deal Artists of the Monkey Block

The Montgomery Block in 1862

The Montgomery Block in 1862
The historic headquarters of San Francisco lawyers, financiers, writers, actors and artists.
Photo Credit: Public Domain

San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Books has been a touchstone of the city’s Bohemian culture for decades, once argued that his North Beach neighborhood “should be officially protected as a ‘historic district’, in the manner of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and thus shielded from commercial destruction such as was suffered by the old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid.”

When the 4-story Montgomery Block was completed in 1853, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Transamerica Pyramid

Transamerica Pyramid
The 48-story skyscraper replaced the Monkey Block
Photo Credit: Commons. Wikimedia.org

North Beach was then the “Barbary Coast” and teemed with brothels, dance halls, jazz clubs and saloons that accompanied the Gold Rush. Early on, 628 Montgomery Street held the offices of lawyers and financiers. Over the years, it housed an assortment of actors, artists and writers, including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, George Sterling, and Emma Goldman. The Montgomery Block survived the earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the city in 1906. Though down-at-the-heel, it continued as a low-rent refuge through the Great Depression when as many as 75 artists and writers rented studios there for as little as $5 a week. The building was affectionately dubbed, “The Monkey Block.”

A number of artists at the Monkey Block got commissions from the federal government to paint the 26 murals at nearby Coit Tower—the first of hundreds of public art installations the New Deal would fund across the country. The political ferment that culminated in San Francisco’s General Strike in 1934 found expression in the murals, which delayed their public opening for fear of adding to the restiveness.

Edith Hamlin and Maynard Dixon

Edith Hamlin and Maynard Dixon 
The artists met at the Monkey Block where they had studios down the hall from one another. They worked together on Edith’s second Federal Art Project mural at Mission High School.
Photo Credit: Courtesy SUU.org

The artists would unwind at the bars and restaurants of the surrounding neighborhood. A favorite watering hole was the Black Cat Café, located a few blocks downhill from the Monkey Block. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Ralph Stackpole, Maynard Dixon, Dorothea Lange, Benny Bufano, Sargent Johnson and William Saroyan were part of the vibrant community of artists the New Deal fostered. Harry Hopkins, administrator of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), famously defended employment programs for artists and writers. “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people,” he said. Though the wages were low, the federal art programs enabled artists not only to eat but to develop their craft, through their proximity to and collaboration with fellow artists.

In her oral history, artist Shirley Staschen Triest recalled the working relationships that emerged at the Black Cat Cafe,“…it was where you’d hear about jobs, if there were any for artists and writers…It was where you’d go because that’s where everything was happening.”

California Industrial Scenes, Coit Tower

California Industrial Scenes, Coit Tower
WPA Muralist John Langley Howard captured the restive mood of Depression-era workers.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FoundSF

Edith Hamlin, who, in addition to Coit Tower, painted murals at Mission High School, credited the WPA “as the beginning of my professional life as a muralist.” Sargent Johnson, whose sculptures adorn public spaces including what is now San Francisco’s Maritime National Historical Park, credits the WPA with his ability to continue as an artist. “The WPA was the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me an incentive to keep on working, where at the time things looked pretty dreary.” Fellow sculptor Benny Bufano summed it up, “WPA’s Federal Art Project laid the foundation of a renaissance of art in America. It has freed American art.”

The New Deal left a legacy of public art in post offices, schools and public buildings. Once the gloom of the Depression lifted, many who had worked for the federal art programs went on to be some of the most important American artists of the 20th century.

Plaque

Plaque 
The former site of the Monkey Block is a California Historical Landmark.
Photo Credit: Public Domain

Fostered by the New Deal, the community that came together at The Monkey Block offers a vivid and inspirational example that, if replicated, could again buoy the lives of artists, writers and performers and perhaps even lead to a new renaissance in American art.

Despite a movement to preserve it, the Monkey Block was demolished in 1959. The neighborhood’s rough-and-ready reputation was much diminished once the TransAmerica skyscraper rose from the rubble of what had for more than a century been a magnet for the city’s counterculture.