Background on the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

Overview

Why Is the WPA Important Now?
What Was the Works Progress Administration (WPA)?
Why Were Artists Included in the WPA?
Why Did the WPA Focus on Creating Jobs for Artists?
What Were the WPA Arts Projects?
How Did the WPA End?

Why Is the WPA Important Now?

The 75th anniversary of the WPA was in 2010, and artists and community members across the country called for a “new WPA” to support artists in placing their gifts at the service of national recovery and sustainable community.

In many ways, current conditions parallel the 1930s, with unemployment and anxiety at high levels. As in the 1930s, jobs are the engine of prosperity, and the money that all employed persons— including artists—spend for rent and groceries helps the economy recover in the same way. And as in the 1930s, when artists are employed in the public interest, both the artist and the community benefit.

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What Was the Works Progress Administration?

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a federally funded program that provided jobs to unemployed people during the Great Depression of the 1930′s.

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the U.S. spiraled into a terrible depression, with huge numbers unemployed, homeless and desperate. WPA head Harry Hopkins estimated in 1935 that 20 million people were on relief (16% out of a population of 125 million).

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a package of economic initiatives dubbed the “New Deal,” including reforms in banking laws, agricultural supports and industrial reforms. But the ultimate key to recovery was to create jobs. The federal government became the nation’s single largest employer from the inception of the WPA in 1935 until it wound down in 1941.

More than $11 billion (the equivalent of $170 billion today) was spent on WPA projects in that time, including everything from the construction of public buildings to providing school lunches. In 1938, at its height, the WPA employed 3.3 million workers.

Today, when you say “WPA,” most people think of arts projects. The posters, murals, monuments, parks and amphitheaters created by WPA artists are the New Deal’s most visible legacy. Because the WPA period has never been equaled as a heyday for art in the public interest, it attracts scholars and artists: new studies, memoirs and documentaries continue to emerge every year.

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Why Were Artists Included in the WPA?

The Roosevelt administration recognized that artists, like other groups in the working population, were hard-hit by the Great Depression. In addition to the economic downturn, changes in technology were affecting the employment of artists: electronic media such as radio and moving pictures were supplanting live theater, throwing thousands of actors and musicians out of work as theaters were closed or converted to movie palaces.

The WPA had programs for all sorts of workers, but before long, key individuals in the Roosevelt administration, sometimes inspired by the work of Mexican muralists or by experimental, socially conscious arts projects in the U.S., saw that by employing artists, they could advance social goals at the same time.

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Why Did The WPA Focus on Artists’ Jobs?

Instead of the current mode of public cultural support, giving grants to existing organizations, the leadership of Federal One wanted to create something new that expressed the urgent public interest in art.

As Hallie Flanagan, the visionary director of the Federal Theatre Project, put it: “We all believed that theater was more than a private enterprise, that it was also a public interest which, properly fostered, might come to be a social and educative force.”

In the 1930s as today, some people opposed public subsidy for artists on the grounds that if the artists were good, they wouldn’t need it. It’s still a silly argument: the public sector subsidizes all sorts of workers (teachers, medical professionals, and just about every job, from cooks to construction workers) to correct for gaps in the private sector. We don’t think a doctor is unworthy if she chooses to work in a public-health setting; to the contrary, we appreciate her willingness to serve in a different capacity than, say, a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. The same is true with artists.

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What Were the WPA Arts Projects?

Several smaller arts projects were created earlier in the New Deal, but Federal One, the largest WPA program, created in 1935, focused on the arts.

Federal One included the five major divisions listed below. Approximately a year after it began, it was employing 40,000 WPA artists and other cultural professionals across the U.S.

The Federal Art Project included a mural program, an easel painting program, a sculpture program, a graphic arts workshop; a photography project; a scenic design division; a poster division; a stained glass division; and the Index of American Design. There were illustration and exhibition services and an Art Teaching Division that established arts centers, some of which still survive today. At its height, over 5,000 visual artists and associated professionals were given jobs.

The Federal Music Project employed more than 16,000 musicians at its peak. Ensembles performed for an estimated 3 million audience members each week. The project included a huge music instruction program, the Composers Forum Laboratory, and the Index of American Composers. The Music Project recorded regional folk music, pioneered in music therapy, and provided support services such as copying and arranging music, enabling public performances the marketplace could no longer support.

The Federal Theatre Project provided jobs for nearly 13,000 theater workers at its height, with units in 31 states. In addition to a massive performance program for new work (with most audience members admitted free of charge), it mounted a Federal Theatre of the Air, broadcasting radio drama into every household with a radio. There were regional theater ensembles, Negro Units, and theaters performing in heritage languages such as Yiddish and Italian. Perhaps best-known were the “Living Newspaper” productions, bringing the headlines to life, including controversial issues such as the housing crisis, venereal disease and farm policy. A small Federal Dance Project was started in 1936 as an offshoot of the Federal Theatre Project.

The Federal Writers Project’s best-known effort was the American Guide Series, comprising 48 state and regional guides that combined local history, natural history and cultural history; many are still in print. Nearly 7,000 writers were employed by the project. They also produced studies on topics ranging from architecture to American Indians. Oral history archives created by FWP workers included the invaluable Slave Narratives and collections of folklore, first-person accounts from memory of knowledge that would otherwise have been lost. The project also provided support services to other federal agencies, such as research, writing and editorial work.

The Historical Records Survey was the smallest project, employing archivists to locate, acquire and conserve historical records.

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How Did the WPA End?

Many artists hoped the WPA would be a permanent feature of public cultural provision: painter Stuart Davis, secretary of the American Artists’ Congress, said, “The artists of America do not look upon the art projects as a temporary stopgap measure, but see in them the beginning of a new and better day for art in this country.”

But as is true today, arts projects generate controversy out of proportion to their budgets. Censorship of controversial WPA material hit the headlines, leading FDR’s critics to see Federal One as the most vulnerable part of the New Deal.

By 1938, the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities declared the Theatre and Writers Projects “a hotbed of Communists” and “one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda network.”

Hearings followed, and in 1939, right-wing members of Congress ended funding for the Federal Theatre Project, inaugurating the decline of Federal One. Not long after, the ramp-up to World War II supplanted the WPA in giving the economy a boost. With these two factors converging, a presidential proclamation marked the official end of the WPA in 1942.

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This page was researched and written for WomenArts by Arlene Goldbard (www.arlenegoldbard.com)

Feel free to share the information on this page, but please be sure to credit Arlene Goldbard and WomenArts. ©WomenArts 2009.