PRINTS FROM THE WPA
On October 29, 1929 the New York stock market crashed, heralding the longest and most severe economic calamity in modern U.S. history - the Great Depression. The prosperity and optimism of the 1920's came to a resounding halt in the ensuing panic. Unemployment rose unchecked until March 1933, when 14 million workers, one-fourth of the total labor force, were jobless
The fine arts in America had not played an important role in the lives of the vast majority of the population even under favorable condition. The market that had existed for American art during the 1920's disappeared.
After achieving a decisive victory in the election of 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated his "New Deal" which included relief for the unemployed. In January 1935, Roosevelt proposed the public employment program for the jobless. With this was born the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
George Biddle a classmate and longtime friend of FDR was aware of the art programs established by the Mexican government in the early 1920's, which enabled artists to paint murals on and in public buildings. Biddle wrote FDR in 1933 and described the Mexican mural movement and he proposed that American artists receive similar government support in return for public art. Roosevelt responded favorably to Biddle's letter and thus began what was to become the largest program in the history of American federal patronage of the arts.
Although all government sponsored art of the 1930s is often thought of as WPA art, in reference to the most well known of the projects, the WPA FAP (Federal Art Project) was just one of many relief programs initiated under Roosevelt. This project has the widest reputation, due to the vast number of relief activities contained within the program. The WPA was established in 1935 and at its peak employed 3 million people. Only two percent at most were artists, a figure, which also included musicians, actors, writers and researchers. Under the umbrella of the WPA was created the Graphic Arts Division.
As small, easily -transported works of art created in large numbers, prints were an ideal art form for reaching a wide audience. The FAP put large numbers of resources toward production of prints, establishing major Graphic Art Workshops in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Woodstock, NY. The administration hired artists who were professional printers like Will Barnett, George Miller and Ted Wahl to print artists' work. Before executing a print, each artist submitted a preparatory drawing for approval. After completion, administrators approved or declined prints for allocation to government institutions. Editions averaged 25 to 30 prints, with three additional proofs given to the artist.
The Graphic Arts Division print workshops made a lasting contribution towards the development of American printmaking, as we know it today. The first comprehensive exhibition of works made by artists of the Graphic Arts Division entitled "PRINTS FOR THE PEOPLE", won critical praise. The exhibit was held in New York City in January 1937 and consisted of over 200 prints by artists from New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Cleveland. By the end of the WPA/FAP project artists produced about 200,00 prints from 11,000 original designs.
At the close of the 1930s the Federal relief programs began to lose their impetus under government preparations for war, and finally disbanded in 1943. In hindsight this federal project was a tremendous success, however it took many years for people to realize the impact of this project on the future of American art. It has only been in the past 15 to 20 years that there has been high praise for the quality of the work produced. During this period there have been numerous exhibitions of prints from the WPA/FAP.
Francis V. O'Connor, ed. The New Deal Art Projects:An Anthology of Memoirs. Washington, D.C., 1972
Elizabeth Gaede Seaton, Ph.D. thesis, Federal Prints and Democratic Culture:The Graphic Arts Division of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, 1935-1943. Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, 2000.