About us
Ideas Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration
Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration Collage

Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration

Quotes

"The younger artists of America are conscious as they have never been of the social revolution that our country and civilization are going through; and they would be very eager to express these ideals in permanent art form if they were given the government's co-operation."
George Biddle
"Through employment of creative artists it is hoped to secure for the public outstanding examples of contemporary America art; through art teaching and recreational art activities to create a broader national art consciousness and work out constructive ways of using leisure time; through services in applied art to aid various campaigns of social value; and through research projects to clarify the native background in the arts. The aim of the project will be to work toward an integration of the arts with the daily life of the community, and an integration of the fine arts and the practical arts."
Holger Cahill
"I had to scheme to get work for abstract artists. I succeeded some of the time, like getting Gorky transferred from the easel project to my mural project and obtaining for him a commission to paint walls at Newark Airport. In negotiating for the work I had to agree that it would not be abstract."
Burgoyne Diller

"The Project was terribly important. It gave us enough to live on and we could paint what we wanted. It was terrific largely because of its director, Burgoyne Diller. I had to resign after a year because I was an alien, but even in that short time, I changed my attitude toward being an artist. Instead of doing odd jobs and painting on the side, I painted and did odd jobs on the side. My life was the same, but I had a different view of it. I gave up the idea of first making a fortune and then painting in my old age."

Willem de Kooning Signature

Synopsis

During its years of operation, the government-funded Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired hundreds of artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures to be found in municipal buildings, schools, and hospitals in all of the 48 states. Additionally, nearly 100 community art centers throughout the country provided art classes for children and developing artists. The FAP was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression, in which he sought to put as many unemployed Americans back to work as possible and to buoy morale of the citizens. Some of the 20th century's greatest visual artists were employed by the FAP, including Thomas Hart Benton and Stuart Davis along with many nascent Abstract Expressionists.

Key Ideas

One of the main aims of the Federal Arts Project was to invoke familiar images that spoke of shared values and American progress, including technological wonders, fertile farmlands, small town life, and big city vibrancy. Additionally, the program hoped to foster the role of the arts in public life and to bring the artist closer to everyday, American life.
The Federal Art Project tended to favor more realistic styles, including Social Realism and Regionalism, although many of the younger painters were able to execute more abstract work in some of the mural designs. The FAP allowed many artists for the first time to work exclusively as artists without taking up side jobs, and it brought the art they created in a variety of styles to communities and cities around the country through murals, easel paintings, photographs, posters, and sculptures.
One of the most consequential aspects of the Project, according to the younger artists involved, with the sense of community that it fostered. By picking up their paychecks every week at the FAP office and getting to know each other as well as working on mural teams, artists no longer felt isolated and instead a camaraderie began to develop. Without this sense of community, it is hard to imagine the formation of Abstract Expressionism, one of the most significant groups in American modern art.

Most Important Art

Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration Famous Art

Aerial Map (1935-37)

Artist: Arshile Gorky
Aerial Map is one of two surviving murals that Gorky painted for Newark Airport's Administration Building. Originally ten murals comprised the cycle, entitled Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations. Drawing on his study of Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger, Gorky's composition relies on bold colors and simple, superimposed shapes to convey a sense of the terrain that one would see from the air or perhaps the shape of the airport itself. The short black dashes and dots in the white shape at the center of the canvas, which roughly resembles the outline of the United States, call to mind flight routes that one would map out. While Gorky's mural was controversial at the time because of its abstract nature, Gorky insisted that an art of the future was necessary to depict the transportation of the future.

The murals were painted over when the airport was turned into a military base during World War II. They were thought lost, but in 1972 they were rediscovered, concealed under fourteen coats of paint that had been applied over the years as part of regular maintenance. Two of the panels were recovered and restored and now on view at the Newark Museum.
Read More ...

Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration Artworks in Focus:

The Origins

In the mid 1930s, the United States remained at the center of a global economic depression. In an effort to provide economic relief to citizens who were having trouble finding work President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. Several months later, a subdivision of the WPA called the Federal Art Project was developed in order to assist struggling artists.

Eagle and Palette, Federal Arts Project logo, designed by Louis Siegriest
Eagle and Palette, Federal Arts Project logo, designed by Louis Siegriest

Prior to the creation of the FAP, Roosevelt made other attempts to provide relief for artists, including the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which only lasted a year, from 1933 to 1934. The Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture was created in 1934 after the PWAP was dissolved, but it too was unsuccessful.

For artists to be considered for the Federal Art Project, they first had to apply for Home Relief to confirm that they were impoverished and then submit samples of their work to demonstrate they were actively creating art. Once approved, an artist's stipend was about $24 per week.

Only a few months after the Federal Art Project was announced, more than 1100 artists were working for the WPA, including artists such as Stuart Davis, Jackson Pollock, and Arshile Gorky.

The Divisions of the FAP

Poster by Vera Brock, <i>Work Pays America! Posterity</i> (1936)
Poster by Vera Brock, Work Pays America! Posterity (1936)

Within the FAP, an artist could work on any number of divisions. A large number of artists, including Willem de Kooning, Ilya Bolotowsky, Ben Shahn, and Arshile Gorky, worked in the mural division. Murals were designed by one or two artists for a specific place and then executed by a team of artists. Often the murals were created in situ, but just as common was to paint the murals on large canvases that would then be installed at the site. Many of the artists who worked on the FAP murals looked to the Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Their painting techniques as well as their social and political subject matter greatly influenced the younger generation of artists. Other artists, including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, worked on the easel division. These artists would create individual paintings of their own design and composition in their personal studios and deliver one or two of them every four weeks to the WPA office. There were also divisions devoted to photography, print making, hand crafts, and graphic design.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration Overview Continues

The Early Years

The curator and arts administrator Holger Cahill was chosen to direct the FAP, overseeing art research, instruction, and production. Artists began creating easel pictures, murals, theater sets, photographs, and posters, and community art centers began to open. The art research arm of the FAP culminated in the massive Index of American design, which presented a comprehensive study of American material culture. Almost 18,000 decorative objects in museums and private collections from the colonial period through the nineteenth century were rendered in watercolors by hundreds of artists around the country. The illustrations were exhibited across the country and a selection was finally published in 1950.

The Museum of Modern Art exhibition <i>New Horizons in American Art</i> (1936)
The Museum of Modern Art exhibition New Horizons in American Art (1936)

On December 27, 1935, the WPA opened the Federal Art Project Gallery at 225 West 57th Street in New York City. Included in one of its first exhibitions were rare watercolors by Jackson Pollock. Cahill understood the need to have this federally funded art legitimized by the mainstream art world. To that end, he employed his wife, Dorothy Miller, who was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, to organize an exhibition of works made during the first year of the FAP. "New Horizons in American Art" opened at MoMA in the fall of 1936.

While Willem de Kooning had been employed as a window designer for a shoe store, he quit his job and eventually found his way into the mural division of the FAP in late 1935. In typical fashion, de Kooning forged life-long and consequential relationships. Here he met the then poet, soon to be critic, Harold Rosenberg, who at the time was working as an assistant to muralist Max Spivak. Mural painters worked in teams, usually with one artist preparing the design and others executing it, sometimes in situ but often on panels that were then transported to the site. In contrast, the painters on the easel division worked alone in their studios, and they were required to bring a new oil painting to the FAP office every four to six weeks.

George Biddle at work on his mural <i>Society Freed through Justice</i> at U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.(1936)
George Biddle at work on his mural Society Freed through Justice at U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.(1936)

By 1936, the FAP employed around 6000 artists. While on the Project, many artists, like Adolph Gottlieb, also joined the Artists' Union, which acted in the artists' interests in bargaining with the government and supported artists who were fired. In subsequent years, Mark Rothko submitted a series of figurative portraits for another subdivision of the WPA, the Treasury Relief Art Project, including Untitled (Two Women at the Window) (1937) and Untitled (Subway) (1937) before joining the easel division.

In the summer of 1937 the U.S. government announced that all WPA workers had to be legal U.S. citizens. This edict meant that Mark Rothko (Latvian), Arshile Gorky (Armenian) and Willem de Kooning (Dutch) could no longer legally participate in the FAP, although it would take some time for the federal government to track down all non-citizen WPA workers. Gorky and Rothko continued to work after the late-summer announcement, but De Kooning, fearing deportation, resigned from the WPA.

The Last Years Prior to World War II

Ilya Bolotowsky and assistant John Joslyn working on mural for the Hall of Medical Sciences at the 1939 New York World's Fair (January 1938)
Ilya Bolotowsky and assistant John Joslyn working on mural for the Hall of Medical Sciences at the 1939 New York World's Fair (January 1938)

In the later 1930s, there was increasing concern (largely unfounded) among conservative politicians of Communist infiltration in the FAP. Many artists were baselessly accused of being Communists, and they were required to sign a loyalty oath. In January 1939, the Federal Art Project began laying off some of its artists. Within that same year, Arshile Gorky became an American citizen and once again was eligible to receive FAP relief, but Mark Rothko (still a non-U.S. citizen) was dropped from the roles on August 17th.

The WPA Dissolves

As the U.S. entered World War II, many of the arts related divisions were incorporated into the war services division and refocused their production to creating camouflage, designing training manuals and pamphlets, and teaching art appreciation classes on military posts. Within a year of going to war, on June 30th, the Federal Art Project disbanded and ceased providing funds of any kind to artists.

In December 1943, the government auctioned off thousands of FAP-funded paintings in a warehouse in Queens. Paintings weren't sold individually, but by the pound. Reportedly, a local plumber purchased a large number of paintings in bulk for the purposes of insulating pipes with used canvases, but he discovered that when the pipes got too hot, the melting paints produced an odd smell. Herbert Benevy, the owner of a local frame shop, also purchased a large number of paintings for $3 per canvas. Among those he bought were paintings by Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.

Legacy

In all, nearly 200,000 artworks were created under the Federal Art Project. And while many of those works have since become lost or were destroyed, much of the country was able to experience art in person for the first time, either in public places like post offices and apartment buildings or in community art centers where they also took classes and heard lectures. The FAP also demonstrated that art was worthwhile work and not a leisure activity to be pursued on the side. Perhaps its most enduring legacy, however, is that it fostered a group of young artists in New York City who would go on just a decade later to create some of the most powerful paintings of the 20th century. The artists of the FAP created enduring images of America's founding and progress that were wrapped into the nation's idealized narrative of its past and future potential, while also democratizing the ideas and the making of art.


If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
[Accessed ]



By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

Useful Resources on Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930's by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (1975) Recomended resource

By Francis V. O'Connor

A New Deal for the Arts (1997) Recomended resource

By Bruce Bustard
In depth look at the arts initiative, based on the 1997 exhibit at the National Archives and Records Administration

When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art and Democracy (2009)

By Roger Kennedy
A summary of the objectives that put the WPA into action

More Interesting Books about Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration
WPA Murals Recomended resource

Large Database of murals created under the WPA, by state

WNYC Archives & Preservation

Sounds file and Artists of WPA

Labor Day Google doodle inspired by art created during The Great Depression

Brief article about how Google incorporated WPA works into a homepage doodle
Doodle from September, 2017

A Treasure Hunt for Lost WPA Masterpieces Recomended resource

By Sarah Cascone
ArtNet News
April 22, 2014

Jackson Pollock Made Exactly One Mosaic in His Lifetime -- and Now It's on Public View

By Sarah Cascone
ArtNet News
September 29, 2017

1934: The Art of the New Deal

By Jerry Adler
Smithsonian Magazine
June 2009

The Government Wants Its WPA Art Back

"Articles for Collectors"
ArtBusiness.com

videos

Works Progress Administration Funds the Arts - 1930 film Recomended resource

Brief video detailing the scope of the WPA

History Fair "Federal Art Project" Documentary

Artworks and details from the WPA

Supporting the Arts through the WPA

Brief Smithsonian documentary on the WPA

1934: A New Deal for Artists, Smithsonian American Art Museum

More Interesting Resources about Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration
Did we succeed in explaining the art to you?
If Yes, please tell others about us: