It was San Francisco, in the early 1940s, and Margery Magnani, a 20-something French literature major, somehow found herself the forewoman, supervising as many as 95 workers.
The Virus Won't Revive FDR's Arts Jobs Program. Here's Why.
In the loft above the pickle factory, dozens of women sat each day at looms or hovered around copper-lined tanks filled with dye, weaving drapes and rugs for the government.
Most of them were old enough to be her mother or grandmother. Some sewed cut-up old military uniforms together by hand. Others hung the finished fabrics over large poles so they would become crisp and presentable.
The younger women worked the 75-gallon tanks, dyeing about 25 pounds of yarn a day into shades of deep red or green. The material would end up as rugs, or drapes for an Army club, or decorations for the venereal disease clinic.
The work usually went without a hitch — except for when the dye would drip down into the pickles below.
“These people would come upstairs just screaming their heads off because all of a sudden there was red and blue water trickling down,” Magnani said in an oral history recorded by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
These weavers were part of a federal jobs program launched in another uncertain time and designed to employ painters and sculptors, actors, musicians, writers and craftspeople who were having a hard time making a living.
For roughly a decade, starting with the Depression of the 1930s, a generation of artists received their paychecks from the government under the auspices of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
They did jobs like teaching art to children or painting murals for schools and post offices.
“On the whole they were united by one very simple, basic thing: They needed to eat,” Burgoyne Diller, a mural supervisor for the Federal Art Project, said in an oral history.
There is talk again in some circles of fashioning additional federal help for artists as the pandemic wreaks havoc on their livelihoods. Some lawmakers, for example, wanted $4 billion in emergency funding for the arts included in the stimulus package.
“There are going to be a lot of people out of work who make their living as a musician, people working for community theaters,” Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, the leader of the Congressional Arts Caucus, said last month. “You can’t turn your back on them.”
But few defenders of the arts are optimistic that a program as sprawling and generous as the New Deal initiative could happen now.
“I’m not sure you can get Congress to agree on anything,” said Barbara Bernstein, founder of the New Deal Art Registry, an online guide to art from that era. “Especially not something as easy to make fun of as an art program.”
For one, President Donald Trump has cast himself as an arts antagonist, at least when it comes to funding. In each of his budget proposals as president, he has called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
And he has no shortage of allies, some of whom view the arts as elitist and others who say that, however valuable, cultural matters should not be the work of government.
Nikki Haley, the Republican former United Nations ambassador, reacted with criticism when Congress finalized the $2 trillion emergency aid bill in March and set aside $250 million for the arts, including the NEA, the NEH, and public television and radio — less than 7% of what lawmakers like Pingree had pushed for.
“How many more people could have been helped with this money?” she tweeted.
The mood was different when the New Deal program passed. Certainly conservatives of that era viewed some artists as dangerously radical leftists, but Roosevelt’s program was a minor part of a major initiative that included money for projects like new roads and bridges. It was pushed by a popular president whose party controlled both houses of Congress. And it came at a time when some in the government saw the morale-boosting benefits of creating a truly “American” artistic style, one no longer derivative of Europe, Bernstein said.
During that era, so many programs disbursed arts funding under a parade of acronyms that even the artists who had benefited couldn’t keep the names straight.
The Farm Security Administration, for example, was the unlikely sounding source of projects that produced famous photographs like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Gordon Parks’ “American Gothic.”
But the engine of the arts funding was the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. It financed roughly 2,500 murals, 18,800 pieces of sculpture and 108,000 easel works. Thousands of original poster designs were created to advertise local zoos and library book talks or encourage people to get tested for syphilis and report dog bites.
Federal Project Number One — an umbrella program for arts funding that was allocated $27 million in 1935 — surfaced in time to support the work of Berenice Abbott.
An Ohio-born photographer, she had an ambitious idea that involved photographing the sprawl of the city. She had, unsuccessfully, sent out hundreds of letters asking for funding.
“But 1929 was not a year for anyone to start new enterprises,” Abbott wrote in “Art for the Millions,” a collection of essays by New Deal artists and arts administrators.
Later, with federal funding, Abbott set up her camera in crowded streets, on rickety fire escapes and on perilous rooftops to capture the architectural sweep of the city in the 1930s, calling the product “Changing New York.”
The artist Charles Alston also found himself adrift after graduating from Columbia College the same year as the stock market crash.
“You lived a secluded life on the campus; that’s your world,” Alston said in a 1965 oral history. “Then you come out and the whole thing has fallen down around your ears.”
Alston eventually became a supervisor on a federally funded project to install murals at Harlem Hospital Center. In 1936, he composed his own — an intricate, sepia-toned diptych — for the lobby of the hospital’s new women’s pavilion. On one panel (“Magic in Medicine”), he illustrated traditional healing practices as well as a ritual Fang reliquary sculpture from Gabon in Central Africa; on the other (“Modern Medicine”), he depicted a microscope and doctors wearing white scrub caps.
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Alston recalled standing in line waiting for his government check, sometimes in the rain or snow or freezing cold, with artists like Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky. (He described Gorky as a “saturnine-looking chap” in his long black coat, wide black hat and large mustache.) The ritual helped create a collective identity among the artists.
The Harlem Artists Guild would meet to discuss their artistic quandaries and to pressure the Works Progress Administration to hire more black artists.
Alston’s studio on 143rd Street served as a gathering place for raucous debates between artists and writers like Ralph Ellison and Claude McKay — the vast majority of them united by their participation in government art projects.
Naturally, the egos and political beliefs of these artists sometimes clashed with what was expected of a government worker.
Government timekeepers would show up where artists worked to make sure they were on the clock. But some artists preferred to paint at night, said Diller, a mural supervisor in New York, and the timekeepers would find them fast asleep in the middle of the day.
“We worked day and night and weekends, and, believe me, we were not well-paid for it,” Diller said in a 1964 oral history, “but we thought it was the most wonderful thing that could be happening.”
Then there was the art that was nearly suppressed because it ruffled feathers.
Plans for Alston’s mural at Harlem Hospital Center nearly ground to a halt when the hospital’s superintendent objected to a sketch that showed health care workers of different races working together. Alston remembered the superintendent saying that the institution “wasn’t a Negro hospital.” But with the support of the Artists Union and sympathetic hospital employees, the mural went up.
In 1937, the Works Progress Administration shut down “The Cradle Will Rock,” a so-called “play in music” that was written by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles as part of the Federal Theater Project. The agency said the decision was a result of bureaucratic reorganization and budget cuts. But many accused the government of censoring the Broadway production because it told a pro-union story about workers in a steel town organizing against their villainous boss.
Uniformed WPA guards demanded that all the show’s costumes, props and set pieces remain in the building because they were considered government property. That pushed the show into scrambling to find a privately funded venue, which it eventually did. On the night of the first scheduled performance, Blitzstein played the music on a piano in the center of the stage, while cast members sang their parts from the audience as a way to circumvent restrictions from the actors’ union. (Welles resigned from the theater project over the episode.)
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In assessing the legacy of these programs, there have long been divisions over whether the New Deal was too uniform and utopian in its vision of America. Much of the art focused on bucolic depictions of American scenery or, as art historian Francis V. O’Connor wrote, of the “earnest worker and his handsome family” living in “blissful diligence in well-planned communities.”
Then, when the United States entered World War II, certain segments of the programs were repurposed to promote the government’s efforts, with the artists spitting out posters urging people to buy war bonds or “sew for victory” or simply promoting patriotism.
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Still, there were plenty of examples of unfettered artistic expression.
At the post office in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, for example, there is a mural called “Meal Time With the Early Coal Miners” by Jared French, in which a group of well-muscled miners — most of them shirtless and wearing skintight pants — wash near aquamarine water, towel off and spread out food on the grass. On the far right, a nude man stands in a boat with what appears to be a hat positioned over his groin.
“People go to the post office to buy their stamps,” Bernstein said, “and there’s a piece of homoerotic art on the wall.”
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As the New Deal art funding programs continued, opposition to them grew, and many of the arguments resemble today’s debate.
The Federal Theater Project became a symbol of congressional ire toward the so-called “boondoggling,” or wasteful spending, of the New Deal. In 1938, the program found itself under the microscope of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Lawmakers charged that the project was being infiltrated by Communists in New York, staging plays with socialist messaging and employing untrained people who pretended to be actors.
The next year, Congress eliminated the theater project and shifted responsibility for the other arts projects to the states. The opposition included conservative Democrats from the South, and it signaled the beginning of the end for New Deal art funding. The entry of the United States into World War II pushed down unemployment numbers, making large-scale employment programs obsolete. The federal arts funding officially ended in 1943.
“It’s rather remarkable that it did last until 1943,” said David Woolner, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. “In today’s political climate — given the deep partisan divide — trying to put through such a program would be very difficult.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .
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