Hard Times

Andrew Hemingway on cultural democracy and the New Deal Art Programs

Ben Shahn, Unemployment, 1940–42, egg tempera on plaster, 9 x 24'. From the four-part mural scheme The Meaning of Social Security, 1940–42. Cohen Federal Building, Washington D.C. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress.

THE UNITED STATES MAY SOON reach levels of unemployment not seen since the 1930s. During that period, the government saw an obligation to provide artists in need with economic support by commissioning or hiring them to produce public artworks on a massive scale. These provisions lasted a decade before they were closed down, when the nation transitioned to a war economy, and they were not resurrected when the war ended—although there were calls for them to be. But while the New Deal arts programs turned out to be temporary, in the minds of many who worked on them and managed them, they signaled a fundamental shift in art’s economy and social base—a shift from the culture of an elitist plutocratic art market to a truly democratic culture. As an unemployed artists group put the matter in September 1933: “The State, by patronizing public art at this time can eliminate once and for all the unfortunate dependence of American artists upon the caprice of private patronage.”1 Such was the hope. As I shall show, its realization was not so easy. Even so, the idea of an alternative economy of the arts continues to appeal, and with good reason.

To many critics at the time, the Roosevelt administrations of the 1930s and 1940s represented a left turn in US politics. Yet the New Deal was not, in any of its phases, a radically redistributive program, nor one that sought to challenge fundamentally the institutions of American capitalism. It named a sequence of pragmatic initiatives to deal with the economic crisis through an extension of the powers of the federal state and the executive. Its achievements were, at most, a pallid reflection of European social-welfare provisions, and they came about partly as a result of popular pressures from below and, especially, the rise of industrial unionism embodied in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) from the mid-1930s onward.

In a speech delivered in 1932, Roosevelt pledged himself to “bold, persistent experimentation” to end the depression; in actuality, the administration had no coherent ideology. However, the scale and duration of the depression gave new appeal to the idea of state intervention in the economy, particularly in light of what appeared to be the successes of Soviet industrial planning. In Roosevelt’s first term, the more radical among his appointees—such as Henry Wallace and Rexford Tugwell—conceived of the New Deal as a long-term project to rein in overweening corporate power and bring it under democratic control, to give organized labor more of a voice in the counsels of government, and to create a full employment economy of shared abundance. But the apparently radical interventionism of Roosevelt’s first-term legislation, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, would not survive his second. Liberals who conceived the state as taking on a permanent directive role to ensure against the vagaries of the market were increasingly sidelined by those who saw it as playing an essentially compensatory one, redressing problems in the economy as they arose but not seeking to channel the mechanisms of capitalism as such.2

Philip Evergood's Cotton from Field to Mill, 1940, in situ at the United States Post Office in Jackson, Georgia. Photo: The Living New Deal.

Although the idea of federal support for the arts in this time of crisis had backing from influential figures, including the president and the first lady, the administration was never committed to establishing federal patronage on a permanent basis. Support for the arts occurred within the framework of a major public works program, conceived to reduce unemployment and pump-prime the economy and various work relief schemes. The Treasury Section of Fine Arts (1934–43) exemplifies the public works model of state interventionism; the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project  (1935–43), while also a form of market interventionism, exemplifies the work relief model. The idea of “work relief” advanced by the progressive social workers in the administration—notably, Frances Perkins (Secretary of Labor) and Harry Hopkins (Secretary of Commerce)—was premised on the belief that giving the unemployed work appropriate to their experience would conserve skills and maintain morale. Direct relief (dole), though cheaper to administer, was demoralizing.

Hopkins believed that the state should play an enduring role in supporting the arts, but this hardly numbered among his major concerns. Attempts by liberal congressmen to institute a federal Bureau of Fine Arts—the Coffee-Pepper and Sirovich Bills of 1938—foundered ignominiously in the House. However, while the idea of a permanent arts program found little support in Congress, it was promoted by some administrators of the Treasury Section and Federal Art Project and supported by many who worked on them and the organizations they built, such as the Workers’ Alliance of America and the Artists’ Union, which had been set up in New York on a communist initiative as the Unemployed Artists Group in summer 1933. The status of Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists as wage-laborers gave clarity and purpose to the Artists’ Union and strengthened its sense of solidarity with other unionized and unionizing workers. By the fall of 1934, it had more than seven hundred members, a number which more than doubled after the start of the Federal Art Project (FAP) in 1935.3 The Artists’ Union engaged in an ongoing struggle with the WPA-FAP administration around pay and working conditions, layoffs, and freedom of expression, so that the defense of existing provisions increasingly took precedence over the demand for permanence. In the late 1930s, the main voice calling for an enduring system of federal patronage was the Communist Party, which held up as a model a fantasy of the Soviet artistic economy. The idea met its final defeat as the communist-engineered “Cultural Plank” of the ill-fated 1948 Progressive Party campaign to elect Henry Wallace to the presidency.4

The New Deal was not, in any of its phases, a radically redistributive program, nor one that sought to challenge fundamentally the institutions of American capitalism.

In November 1933, Hopkins secured four hundred million dollars to set up the Civil Works Administration (CWA), a short-term work relief program to be administered on a federal basis. By January 18, 1934, it had a workforce of 4.2 million. At first, CWA projects were overwhelmingly in construction and gave work mainly to the unskilled. In December 1933, however, the CWA made a grant to the Treasury Department to employ artists for the embellishment of public buildings, which was the basis for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Federally administered and directed by the artist and businessman Edward Bruce, the PWAP lasted four and a half months and cost $1,312,117. It employed 3,749 artists who produced 15,663 art and craft objects, including 706 murals and mural sketches, 3,821 oils, 2,938 watercolors, 1,518 prints, and 647 sculptures. The works were widely distributed among government buildings, offices, and schools.5 The summation of the program was the “National Exhibition of Art by the Public Works of Art Project,” held at the Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, DC, in April and May of 1934. According to the catalog, the subject assigned to the artists was “the American scene in all its phases. Within this scope the artists were given the utmost freedom of expression.” The works on view were overwhelmingly bland images of landscapes, urban scenes, and labor, some idea of which can be formed from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s 2009 exhibition “1934: A New Deal for Artists.”

Art critic Forbes Watson was the PWAP’s technical director and principal ideologue. The discourse through which Watson and Bruce framed both the PWAP and the later Treasury Section was entirely in line with the radical interventionism of New Dealers such as Tugwell and Wallace: that is, it envisaged a fundamental shift in the functions of government in the art market. The project was presented as the first truly democratic system of patronage in history and as a proper cultural counterpart to the American republic. Although the PWAP was supposed to be above politics, Bruce claimed that its spirit “fits into the New Deal and gives it that idealistic value which is indispensable for the creation of a new philosophy for a new civilization.”6

Victor Arnautoff, Edward Hansen, and Farwell Taylor, California Life (detail), 1934, fresco, 10 x 35'. Coit Tower, San Francisco. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress.

The most controversial aspect of the project was the attempt to foster a modern public art in emulation of Mexican muralism, a facet of the PWAP’s work represented at the Corcoran mainly by photographs. The most divisive PWAP murals—and arguably the project’s greatest accomplishment—are found in the base of Coit Tower in San Francisco. A monument to the benefactress Lillie Hitchcock Coit completed in 1933, the tower is a reinforced concrete column 180 feet high, resting on a base of 32 feet. The plan to decorate the cramped and, in parts, ill-lit first and second floors with scenes of Californian life involved 3,691 square feet of mostly true fresco, executed by twenty-five artists and nineteen assistants. In the whole span of New Deal art patronage, it was unparalleled in its ambitious model of collective labor. But the furor over contributions by communist and communist-leaning artists—which led only to the removal of a hammer-and-sickle emblem—indicated how difficult it would be for artists to inject the revolutionary iconography of Mexican muralism, so central to the movement’s ethos and status, into federal public art.7 One of the contentious murals—and arguably the most successful—was City Life by the communist Victor Arnautoff, whose 1936 panels on The Life of Washington, painted for George Washington High School, in San Francisco, under the auspices of the WPA-FAP, have recently demonstrated the continuing capacity of some New Deal art to bring out the contest of values entailed in almost any representation of the nation’s past.8

Bernard Zakheim, Library (detail), 1934, fresco, 10 x 10'. Coit Tower, San Francisco. Photo: Joe Crawford.

In September 1934, Bruce negotiated the establishment of the Section of Fine Arts in the Treasury, which would draw funds from the federal building program. Initially, he hoped to reserve one percent of each new building’s cost for artwork, but in the event, the Section usually received less and the majority of new constructions went undecorated. Although Bruce had planned to make the Section a permanent part of the Treasury, when he died, in 1943, the Section died with him. Whereas with the PWAP and later WPA-FAP artists were employed as wage-laborers, Section artists were commissioned to execute works for a specified sum. The Section aspired to pay twenty dollars per square foot, but rarely could, and contracts were expected to cover materials and other expenses such as travel and installation.

Historians of the Section have emphasized the tight rein exercised on the artists by the program’s Washington office and the conservatism of its iconography.9 Richard D. McKinzie sums up this attitude: “The Section staff knew the kind of art it wanted, made it clear to artists, and handled the commissions in a manner that gave some control if the work went wrong.”10 This is true, but it should not lead readers to think that the Section’s administrators were omnipotent and got everything their way. They needed artists of stature and employed a significant number of left-wingers who got at least some of what they wanted too. It is notable that the largest and most expensive Section murals—the artists’ total fee was $29,000—were the 2,913 square feet of true fresco in the main post office in Saint Louis, illustrating the city’s history and executed by the fellow-travelers Edward Millman and Mitchell Siporin in 1940–42. The artists visited Mexico in 1939 to study José Clemente Orozco’s work in preparation for their own and seem to have ignored instructions from the Washington office to tone down “the over-serious expression” of their figures, so as to make the “‘social conscious’ quality…less insistent,” as their supervisor put it.11 The murals make Saint Louis history look a violent, conflicted, and serious business.

Edward Millman, Pre-Civil War Missouri (detail of south wall), 1940-42, fresco, 8'10'' x 29'. From Millman and Mitchell Siporin's 13-panel mural scheme for the United States Post Office, 1940-42. St. Louis, Missouri. Photo: Charles Swaney/ Creative Commons 2012.

Nonetheless, artists had to work within the Section’s parameters. In the course of its existence, the Section held 190 competitions, for which it received a total of more than forty thousand sketches. Regional committees selected the winning designs and shipped them to the Section’s Washington office, which had final approval and administered execution. For the majority of the 1,371 commissions it awarded no competition was held. But most went to artists who had made what were seen as notable submissions to contests. Entering was the way artists made themselves known to the Section and learned how to tailor their work to its predilections. The Section also sent its mimeographed Bulletin, for free, to eighty-five hundred artists, who could read therein exactly the kind of thing it wanted. It made clear that murals and sculptures should be easily understandable and complicated intellectual ideas would be “a great drawback.” Bruce—a conservative modern himself—despised academicism and wanted good drawing and no social criticism. The fact that the Section excluded artists from its decision-making (except those it nominated to juries) was an ongoing cause for complaint, and the competition system was fiercely criticized in the pages of the Artists’ Union magazine Art Front.12 The competition system produced an illusion of fairness, rather than the substance, and induced needy artists who did not win to expend time and material costs for which they received no recompense.

All in all, the Section decorated 1,118 buildings in 1,083 locations.13 The majority of these were post offices, although it was also assigned spaces in a group of major federal buildings in Washington, DC. Post offices were embellished with paintings and sculptures that illustrated either the history or industries of the place, or the history of the mails. Yet even within the template of the pallid official art that Bruce sought to impose, with its bland didacticism and formal conservatism, some artists achieved works of complexity and distinction, among which I count Ben Shahn’s frescoes (1940-42) in the former Social Security Administration building in Washington, DC, and Philip Evergood’s oil painting Cotton from Field to Mill, 1940, in the post office in Jackson, Georgia.

Ben Shahn, Child Labor, 1940–42, egg tempera on plaster, 9 x 15'. From the four-part mural scheme The Meaning of Social Security, 1940–42. Cohen Federal Building, Washington D.C. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress.

At the end of 1934, around twenty million people were still receiving government assistance. Roosevelt, influenced by the increasingly powerful Hopkins, was determined to reduce the dole by a massive program of emergency public works. In April 1935, Congress passed the first Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which gave the president control of nearly five billion dollars. Rather than rely on existing agencies to administer this money, a massive new organization, the WPA, was set up under Hopkins’s direction. Hopkins had always intended to include relief for artists in this program. In the end, four cultural projects were instituted, for music, theater, art, and writing, known collectively as Federal Project Number One, or Federal One.

Much larger than the programs run by Bruce from the Treasury, the WPA-FAP received nearly fourteen times the Section’s funds and employed around ten times the number of individuals. Between 1935 and 1943, it realized 2,566 murals, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 paintings in oil and other media, and some 240,000 impressions of 11,285 prints.14 Since the WPA was not established through any substantive law, and was contingent on funds granted to it by Congress, it was also haunted by impermanence. Its continuance was always uncertain and became more so after Democratic defeats in the 1938 midterm elections and the convening of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in that year.

Charles White, Five Great American Negroes, 1939, oil on canvas, 60 x 155''. Photo: The Charles White Archives and The Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

The director of the Federal Art Project—the art critic and curator Holger Cahill—was far more sympathetic to modernism than Bruce and saw the project as a realization of the aesthetic philosophy of John Dewey, whose Art as Experience was published in 1934. Following Dewey, Cahill emphasized the “pervasiveness” and ordinariness of aesthetic experience and its place in “community” life. He criticized both the tendency for the arts to become “more and more a minor luxury product,” and also the concentration of American art in “two or three metropolitan centers.” Correspondingly, Cahill rejected “extreme subjectivism” and overemphasis on “individual talent.” For him, art was not a matter of “rare occasional masterpieces,” a concept which he saw in part as an effect of the machinations of the art trade. By contrast, he wanted to expand the audience for art in America, to stimulate “broad democratic community participation in the creative experience.” Cahill claimed that the WPA-FAP had “encouraged the closest possible collaboration between the artist and the public for which he works; and because it has held firmly to the idea of the greatest degree of freedom for the artist.” Inevitably, matters were less consensual than this implied.15

The relative pluralism of the WPA-FAP came about not only because Cahill and some of his administrators were progressives and liberals, but also because of the solidarity and militancy of the artists.

As a branch of the WPA, the FAP was by definition a relief project; it was means-tested and its primary function was to help those in need. But this should not obscure the fact that Cahill was concerned with the quality of the work and felt that a certain standard was essential to defend the project against congressional criticism. However, he did not enforce narrow quality criteria, as he believed only a liberal conception of standards would generate a widespread flowering of talent. Indeed, the importance of the Federal Art Project lay partly in its educational work, including exhibitions and the founding of Community Art Centers in deprived areas of the country, such as Harlem and Chicago’s South Side, which gave important opportunities to young African American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Charles White.

Mitchell Siporin, Labor and the Land (detail of east lobby), 1940–42, fresco, 12'8'' x 4'4''. From Sporin and Edward Millman's 13-panel mural scheme for the United States Post Office, 1940-42. St. Louis, Missouri. Photo: Charles Swaney/ Creative Commons 2012.

It is much harder to make a general assessment of WPA art than of the Section’s. The Section left a meticulous bureaucratic record in the shape of correspondence from administrators and artists in the National Archives; the WPA-FAP record is principally whatever survives in Holger Cahill’s papers in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. The majority of Section art remains in the federal buildings for which it was commissioned; the fate of WPA-FAP work loaned to nonfederal state and city institutions was far more precarious, and no central record of it was kept.16 Unlike WPA construction projects, the FAP did not require a sponsor in individual states to pay for nonlabor and part of the labor costs. But project chiefs did not expect the Federal Art Project to give its services gratis. Theoretically, all art produced under WPA-FAP was supposed to be allocable to some public space. These could not be federal buildings but rather “authorized governmental agenc[ies],” such as schools, hospitals, and courthouses. This proviso and the exclusion of nudes and directly political subject matter were the only restrictions.

Public murals and sculptures were inevitably the aspect of the program that drew most public attention. The work of mural painters and sculptors was more tightly controlled than that of those assigned to the easel and print divisions, and it is by no means clear that radical artists who worked for both the Section and the WPA-FAP produced more politically charged or better work for the latter. What is certain is that in some regions, the Federal Art Project allowed artists a degree of stylistic latitude unthinkable to Bruce, which led to major modernist schemes, the most notable being the Williamsburg Housing Project murals in Brooklyn—today, these murals are partially preserved in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, except for Stuart Davis’s standout Swing Landscape (1938), which was never installed and now resides in the collection of the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, at Indiana University Bloomington.17

Ilya Bolotowsky working on Williamsburg Housing Project mural with assistant John Joslyn, 1938, photograph, 9 3/4 x 8 1/4''. Photo: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

However, the relative pluralism of the WPA-FAP came about not only because Cahill and some of his administrators were progressives and liberals—not all were—but also because of the solidarity and militancy of the artists.18 Ironically, if the Federal Art Project approached something like the “cultural democracy” Cahill aspired to, it was because of artists’ self-organization through the Artists’ Union, a structure that was, on one level, a communist front.19 Without intending to, the WPA-FAP and the Communist Party created institutional frameworks within which artists themselves forged a vital collective culture.20

While the coming depression may rival in scale that of the 1930s, the differences in the socioeconomic, political, and cultural circumstances are so vast that they baffle direct comparison. The Green New Deal shares little with its Rooseveltian precursor beyond its name and a willingness to use the machinery of the state to engineer a more just society. “New Deal” stands more for a motivating myth than a concrete program. Though the precedent of the Unemployed Artists Group might resonate with culture workers subject to an ongoing wave of layoffs and cutbacks in museums, universities, and colleges, in the absence of state employment, the example of the Artists’ Union may seem rather empty. But its history is otherwise resonant, for it illustrates that unions can be more than simply organized labor’s authorized bargaining agents. They can also fulfill an educational role and serve as laboratories for an emancipatory cultural vision. While the iconographic, formal, and technical models of much New Deal art seem obsolete today, the artists’ larger ambition for nonmarket-based artistic economy grounded in truly democratic principles awaits fulfilment.

Andrew Hemingway is Emeritus Professor in History of Art at University College London.


1. Handbill for “Artist [sic] Group of the Emergency Work Bureau,” September 24, 1933.

2. Andrew Hemingway, “Cultural Democracy by Default: The Politics of the New Deal Arts Programmes,” Oxford Art Journal 30, no. 2 (2007), 287.

3. Gerald M. Monroe, “Artists as Militant Trade Union Workers During the Great Depression,” Archives of American Art Journal 14, no.1 (1974): 7–10; “Artists on the Barricades: The Militant Artists’ Union Treats with the New Deal,” Archives of American Art Journal 18, no. 3 (1978): 20–23.

4. Andrew Hemingway, Artists on the Left: American Artists and the Communist Movement, 1926–1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 149–51, 198; Louis Lozowick, “Status of the Artist in the USSR,” in Against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists’ Congress, ed. Matthew Baigell and Julia Williams (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 85–86, 162–65.

5. Richard D. McKinzie, The New Deal for Artists (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 27. This remains the best general account of the art programs.

6. For a detailed analysis, see Hemingway, “Cultural Democracy by Default,” 269–78.

7. See Anthony W. Lee, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics and San Francisco’s Public Murals (Berkeley: California University Press, 1999).

8. See especially Robin D. G. Kelley, “We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong,” The Nation, September 10, 2019.

9. Representative interpretations include Marlene Park and Gerald Markowitz, Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984); Barbara Melosh, Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).The most developed comparison of the Treasury and FAP programs is Belisario R. Contreras, Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1983).

10. McKinzie, New Deal, 53.

11. Hemingway, Artists on the Left, 166–69.

12. See Gerald M. Monroe, “Art Front,” Archives of American Art Journal 13, no. 3 (1973): 13-19.

13. McKinzie, New Deal, 66. For the ill-fated Treasury Relief Art Project – which applied WPA funds to the decoration of existing federal buildings – see McKinzie, New Deal, 38-42.

14. McKinzie, New Deal, 105.

15. Holger Cahill, “American Resources in the Arts,” in Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, ed. Francis V. O’Connor (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 33–44.

16. See “Inventory of Section Murals and Sculptures,” in Melosh, Engendering Culture, 233-63. The General Services Administration has a cataloging project that has located more than 20,000 WPA artworks. See: www.gsa-gov/fine-arts

17. On the modernist murals of the WPA-FAP, see Jody Patterson's important forthcoming book, Modernism for the Masses: Painters, Politics, and Public Murals in 1930s New York (New Haven: Yale University Press, November 2020).

18. For artists’ perception of this, see Stuart Davis, “American Artists’ Congress,” in O’Connor, Art for the Millions, 250.

19. For a view of the communists’ role by a participant, see Lincoln Rothschild, “Artists’ Organizations of the Depression Decade,” in The New Deal Arts Projects: An Anthology of Memoirs, ed. Francis V. O’Connor (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972), 216–21.

20. Hemingway, “Cultural Democracy by Default,” 269–87.