Federal Art Project

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Eagle and palette design regarded as the logo of the Federal Art Project

The Federal Art Project (1935–43) was a New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States. Under national director Holger Cahill, it was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, and the largest of the New Deal art projects. It was created not as a cultural activity but as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts. The WPA Federal Art Project established more than 100 community art centers throughout the country, researched and documented American design, commissioned a significant body of public art without restriction to content or subject matter, and sustained some 10,000 artists and craft workers during the Great Depression.

Background[edit]

Poster summarizing Federal Art Project employment and activities (November 1, 1936)
The Workers (c. 1935), a wall hanging created by Florence Kawa for the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, was presented to Eleanor Roosevelt[1]:164

The Federal Art Project was the visual arts arm of the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration, a Federal One program. Funded under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, it operated from August 29, 1935, until June 30, 1943. It was created as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, Index of American Design documentation, museum and theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts. The Federal Art Project operated community art centers throughout the country where craft workers and artists worked, exhibited and educated others.[2] The project created more than 200,000 separate works, some of them remaining among the most significant pieces of public art in the country.[3]

The Federal Art Project's primary goals were to employ out-of-work artists and to provide art for non-federal municipal buildings and public spaces. Artists were paid $23.60 a week; tax-supported institutions such as schools, hospitals and public buildings paid only for materials.[4] The work was divided into art production, art instruction and art research. The primary output of the art-research group was the Index of American Design, a mammoth and comprehensive study of American material culture.

As many as 10,000 artists were commissioned to produce work for the WPA Federal Art Project,[5] the largest of the New Deal art projects. Three comparable but distinctly separate New Deal art projects were administered by the United States Department of the Treasury: the Public Works of Art Project (1933–34), the Section of Painting and Sculpture (1934–43) and the Treasury Relief Art Project (1935–38).[6]

The WPA program made no distinction between representational and nonrepresentational art. Abstraction had not yet gained favor in the 1930s and 1940s and, thus, was virtually unsalable. As a result, the Federal Art Project supported such iconic artists as Jackson Pollock before their work could earn them income.[7]

One particular success was the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, which started in 1935 as an experiment that employed 900 people who were classified as unemployable due to their age or disability.[1]:164 The project came to employ approximately 5,000 unskilled workers, many of them women and the long-term unemployed. Historian John Gurda observed that the city's unemployment hovered at 40 percent in 1933. "In that year," he said, "53 percent of Milwaukee's property taxes went unpaid because people just could not afford to make the tax payments."[8] Workers were taught bookbinding, block printing and design, which they used to create handmade art books and children's books. They produced toys, dolls,[9] theatre costumes, quilts,[8] rugs, draperies, wall hangings and furniture that were purchased by schools, hospitals[1]:164 and municipal organizations[10] for the cost of materials only.[11] In 2014, when the Museum of Wisconsin Art mounted an exhibition of items created by the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, furniture was found that was still being used at the Milwaukee Public Library.[8]

Holger Cahill was national director of the Federal Art Project. Other administrators included Audrey McMahon, director of the New York Region (New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia); Clement B. Haupers, director for Minnesota;[12] and Robert Bruce Inverarity, director for Washington state.

Notable artists[edit]

Some 10,000 artists were commissioned to work for the Federal Art Project.[5] Notable artists include the following:

Community Art Center program[edit]

Jacksonville Negro Art Center, Jacksonville, Florida
Eleanor Roosevelt at the dedication of the South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois (May 7, 1941)
Poster for the opening of the Mason City Art Center, Mason City, Iowa (1941)
Children's art class at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
American design exhibit at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell, New Mexico (1941)
Poster for the Harlem Community Art Center, New York City (1938)
Class at the Harlem Community Art Center (January 1, 1938)
Poster for the open house of the Greensboro Art Center, Greensboro, North Carolina (1937)
Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Curry County Art Center, Gold Beach, Oregon

The first federally sponsored community art center opened in December 1936 in Raleigh, North Carolina.[143]

State City Name Notes
Alabama Birmingham Extension art gallery[3]:441
Alabama Birmingham Healey School Art Gallery [3]:441
Alabama Mobile Mobile Art Center, Public Library Building [3]:441
Arizona Phoenix Phoenix Art Center [3]:441
District of Columbia Washington, D.C. Children's Art Gallery [3]:441
Florida Bradenton Bradenton Art Center [3]:441
Florida Coral Gables Coral Gables Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:441
Florida Daytona Beach Daytona Beach Art Center [3]:441
Florida Jacksonville Jacksonville Art Center [3]:441
Florida Jacksonville Jacksonville Beach Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:441
Florida Jacksonville Jacksonville Negro Art Center Extension art gallery[3]:441[144]
Florida Key West Key West Community Art Center [3]:441
Florida Miami Miami Art Center [3]:441
Florida Milton Milton Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:441
Florida New Smyrna Beach New Smyrna Beach Art Center [3]:441
Florida Ocala Ocala Art Center [3]:441
Florida Pensacola Pensacola Art Center [3]:441
Florida St. Petersburg Jordan Park Negro Exhibition Center [3]:441
Florida St. Petersburg St. Petersburg Art Center [3]:442
Florida St. Petersburg St. Petersburg Civic Exhibition Center [3]:442
Florida Tampa Tampa Art Center [3]:442
Florida Tampa West Tampa Negro Art Gallery [3]:442
Illinois Chicago South Side Community Art Center [3]:442
Iowa Mason City Mason City Art Center [3]:442
Iowa Ottumwa Ottumwa Art Center [3]:442
Iowa Sioux City Sioux City Art Center [3]:442
Kansas Topeka Topeka Art Center [3]:442
Minnesota Minneapolis Walker Art Center [3]:442[145]
Mississippi Greenville Delta Art Center [3]:442
Mississippi Oxford Oxford Art Center [3]:442[146]
Mississippi Sunflower Sunflower County Art Center [3]:442
Missouri St. Louis The People's Art Center [3]:442
Montana Butte Butte Art Center [3]:442
Montana Great Falls Great Falls Art Center [3]:442
New Mexico Gallup Gallup Art Center [3]:443[147]
New Mexico Melrose Melrose Art Center [3]:443
New Mexico Roswell Roswell Museum and Art Center [3]:443
New York City Brooklyn Brooklyn Community Art Center [3]:443
New York City Manhattan Contemporary Art Center [3]:443[148]
New York City Harlem Harlem Community Art Center [3]:443
New York City Flushing, Queens Queensboro Community Art Center [3]:443
North Carolina Cary Cary Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro Art Center [143]
North Carolina Greenville Greenville Art Gallery [3]:443
North Carolina Raleigh Crosby-Garfield School Extension art gallery[3]:443
North Carolina Raleigh Needham B. Broughton High School Extension art gallery[3]:443
North Carolina Raleigh Raleigh Art Center [3]:444
North Carolina Wilmington Wilmington Art Center [3]:443
Oklahoma Bristow Bristow Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Claremore Claremore Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Claremore Will Rogers Public Library Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Clinton Clinton Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Cushing Cushing Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Edmond Edmond Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Marlow Marlow Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Oklahoma City Oklahoma Art Center [3]:443
Oklahoma Okmulgee Okmulgee Art Center Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Sapulpa Sapulpa Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Shawnee Shawnee Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oklahoma Skiatook Skiatook Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:443
Oregon Gold Beach Curry County Art Center [3]:444
Oregon La Grande Grande Ronde Valley Art Center [3]:444
Oregon Salem Salem Art Center [3]:444
Pennsylvania Somerset Somerset Art Center [3]:444
Tennessee Chattanooga Hamilton County Art Center [3]:444
Tennessee Memphis LeMoyne Art Center [3]:444
Tennessee Nashville Peabody Art Center [3]:444
Tennessee Norris Anderson County Art Center [3]:444
Utah Cedar City Cedar City Art Exhibition Association Extension art gallery[3]:444
Utah Helper Helper Community Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:444
Utah Price Price Community Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:444
Utah Provo Provo Community Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:444
Utah Salt Lake City Utah State Art Center [3]:444
Virginia Altavista Altavista Extension Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Virginia Big Stone Gap Big Stone Gap Art Gallery [3]:444
Virginia Lynchburg Lynchburg Art Gallery [3]:444
Virginia Richmond Children's Art Gallery [3]:444
Virginia Saluda Middlesex County Museum Extension art gallery[3]:444
Washington Chehalis Lewis County Exhibition Center Extension art gallery[3]:444
Washington Pullman Washington State College Extension art gallery[3]:444
Washington Spokane Spokane Art Center [3]:444[149]
West Virginia Morgantown Morgantown Art Center [3]:445
West Virginia Parkersburg Parkersburg Art Center [3]:445
West Virginia Scotts Run Scotts Run Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Casper Casper Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Lander Lander Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Laramie Laramie Art Center [3]:445
Wyoming Newcastle Lander Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Rawlins Rawlins Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Riverton Riverton Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Rock Springs Rock Springs Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Sheridan Sheridan Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445
Wyoming Torrington Torrington Art Gallery Extension art gallery[3]:445

Index of American Design[edit]

Federal Art Project Illinois poster for an exhibition of the Index of American Design

As we study the drawings of the Index of American Design we realize that the hands that made the first two hundred years of this country's material culture expressed something more than untutored creative instinct and the rude vigor of a frontier civilization. … The Index, in bringing together thousands of particulars from various sections of the country, tells the story of American hand skills and traces intelligible patterns within that story.

— Holger Cahill, national director of the Federal Art Project[150]:xv

The Index of American Design program of the Federal Art Project produced a pictorial survey of the crafts and decorative arts of the United States from the early colonial period to 1900. Artists working for the Index produced nearly 18,000 meticulously faithful watercolor drawings,[1]:226 documenting material culture by largely anonymous artisans.[150]:ix Objects range from furniture, silver, glass, stoneware and textiles to tavern signs, ships's figureheads, cigar-store figures, carousel horses, toys, tools and weather vanes.[1]:224[151] Photography was used only to a limited degree since artists could more accurately and effectively present the form, character, color and texture of the objects. The best drawings approach the work of such 19th-century trompe-l'œil painters as William Harnett; lesser works represent the process of artists who were given employment and expert training.[150]:xiv

"It was not a nostalgic or antiquarian enterprise," wrote historian Roger G. Kennedy. "It was initiated by modernists dedicated to abstract design, hoping to influence industrial design — thus in many ways it parallelled the founding philosophy of the Museum of Modern Art in New York."[1]:224

Holger Cahill, national director of the Federal Art Project, speaking at the Harlem Community Art Center (October 24, 1938)

Like all WPA programs, the Index had the primary purpose of providing employment.[152] Its function was to identify and record material of historical significance that had not been studied and was in danger of being lost. Its aim was to gather together these pictorial records into a body of material that would form the basis for organic development of American design — a usable American past accessible to artists, designers, manufacturers, museums, libraries and schools. The United States had no single comprehensive collection of authenticated historical native design comparable to those available to scholars, artists and industrial designers in Europe.[153]

"In one sense the Index is a kind of archaeology," wrote Holger Cahill. "It helps to correct a bias which has tended to relegate the work of the craftsman and the folk artist to the subconscious of our history where it can be recovered only by digging. In the past we have lost whole sequences out of their story, and have all but forgotten the unique contribution of hand skills in our culture."[150]:xv

The Index of American Design operated in 34 states and the District of Columbia from 1935 to 1942. It was founded by Romana Javitz, head of the Picture Collection of the New York Public Library, and textile designer Ruth Reeves.[1]:224 Reeves was appointed the first national coordinator; she was succeeded by C. Adolph Glassgold (1936) and Benjamin Knotts (1940). Constance Rourke was national editor.[150]:xii The work is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.[154]

The Index employed an average of 300 artists during its six years in operation.[150]:xiv One artist was Magnus S. Fossum, a longtime farmer who was compelled by the Depression to move from the Midwest to Florida. After he lost his left hand in an accident in 1934, he produced watercolor renderings for the Index, using magnifiers and drafting instruments for accuracy and precision. Fossum eventually received an insurance settlement that made it possible for him to buy another farm and leave the Federal Art Project.[1]:228

WPA Art Recovery Project[edit]

External video
Sixthaveatfourteenth FAP John Sloan.jpg
Returning America’s Art to America, General Services Administration[155]

Hundreds of thousands of artworks were commissioned under the Federal Art Project.[5] Many of the portable works have been lost, abandoned or given away as unauthorized gifts. As custodian of the work, which remains Federal property, the General Services Administration maintains an inventory[156] and works with the FBI and art community to identify and recover WPA art.[157] In 2010 it produced a 22-minute documentary about the WPA Art Recovery Project, "Returning America’s Art to America", narrated by Charles Osgood.[158]

In July 2014, the General Services Administration estimated that only 20,000 of the portable works have been located to date.[156][159] In 2015, GSA investigators found 122 Federal Art Project paintings in California libraries, where most had been stored and forgotten.[160]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Kennedy, Roger G.; David Larkin (2009). When art worked. New York: Rizzoli. ISBN 978-0-8478-3089-3. 
  • Federal Art Project. New York City. Federal Art Centers of New York. FAP: New York, 1937? 8 pp.
    • A brief overview of art in America and the functions of the FAP. Brief description of what the FAP art centers do, particularly in New York City. Brief descriptions of the four art centers in New York: Contemporary Art Center; Brooklyn Community Art Center; Harlem Community Art Center; and the Queensboro Community Art Center. FOUND IN AAA Reel 1085.19-27
  • Kelly, Andrew, Kentucky by Design: American Culture, the Decorative Arts and the Federal Art Project's Index of American Design, University Press of Kentucky, 2015, ISBN 978-0-8131-5567-8

External links[edit]