March 5, 2009
On a recent visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new show on Depression-era artists, it was hard to tell if this was a glimpse of the future or a look at the past.
“The United States was in crisis,” reads the text on the walls. “The national economy fell into a profound depression. . . . Thousands of banks failed, wiping out the life savings of millions of families. . . Businesses struggled or collapsed. . . .”
In March 1934, the nation was looking to its new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for answers; unemployment was at a staggering 25 percent—13 million people were out of work.
As part of its bold move to restore confidence in the economy and to bring back jobs, the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal relief efforts supported not just factory workers and farmers, but unemployed artists as well. Between 1934 and 1942, an alphabet soup of programs emerged to support the arts—PWAP, WPA, FAP, FWP, FSA, FTP—and painters, photographers, writers and playwrights received weekly salaries to create.
“One hundred years from now,” Roosevelt predicted, “my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief.”
The exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists highlights the PWAP (Public Works of Art Project), the first of the arts programs. It lasted just six months, but at a cost of $1,312,000 it employed 3,749 artists, who created 15,663 paintings, murals, photographs, sculptures, prints and craft objects.
Depict the American Scene was the PWAP’s only directive. And the artists interpretations give us a window into a world that few of us can recall—those that lived through the depression are now in their 80s. So the exhibit becomes a journey back in time, a chance to view a scene in a local barbershop, a game of night baseball at a country club, a view of the as-yet-unfinished Golden Gate bridge, or glimpses of workers in a factory juxtaposed with the glamorous life of a radio personality.
We’ve put together a sampling of the 56 paintings on view now through January 3, 2010 at the American Art Museum in this photo gallery. And please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments area below. Are we doomed to a history that repeats itself?
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