Cultural Reconstruction

During a 1937 visit to Washington State, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt examined the work of "an old ship captain" employed by the FAP as a maker of model ships.

First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt visits Seattle, WA and examines Federal Art Projects. 

With an unstable economy still, the Works Progress Administration, later named the Works Projects Administration (WPA), was created in 1935. The WPA was the largest American New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed, unskilled men, to carry out public works projects. As well as the construction of public buildings and roads, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors, and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. The stated goal of public building programs was to end the depression or, at least, alleviate its worst effects," sociologist Robert D. Leighninger asserted. "Millions of people needed subsistence incomes. Work relief was preferred over public assistance because it maintained self-respect, reinforced the work ethic, and kept skills sharp.”[1] It was social theory emphasizing the value of individual pride derived from useful work and the need for cultural improvement in American society.

Persistent unemployment was a continuing concern, and Roosevelt felt that simply doling out relief payments would mean "spiritual and moral disintegration destructive to the national fibre.”[2] On May 6, 1935, the Works Progress Administration was established under the direction of long-time FDR aide Harry Hopkins. The WPA philosophy was to put the unemployed back to work in jobs which would serve the public good and conserve the skills and the self-esteem of workers throughout the U.S. [3]Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA stated the objective of this program was to take 3,500,000 people off relief and put them to work. The second objective was to put them to work on the best possible projects. A significant aspect of the WPA was the Federal Project Number One, which was divided among five parts: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the Historical Records Survey. After one year, over 40,000 artists and other workers had been employed through the Federal Project Number One.

In August of 1935, the Federal Government launched the Federal Arts Project (FAP), aiming at conserving the skill and talent of artists throughout the country. The FAP employed more than 5,000 men and women from 1935-1943 and in addition to employing artists, the FAP was also intended to make art accessible to the population at large. The FAP was one of the cultural reconstructions set in motion by the Roosevelt administration during the summer of 1935, underneath the umbrella of the WPA, and held the primary purpose of providing employment to artists relief. “No one became rich or famous directly through this program,” Northwest art historian Martha Kingsbury has written, ”but artists in areas like the Northwest received two very valuable benefits: the recognition and status of having a respected profession and the encouragement that implicitly went with that; and, more practically, the time and materials made available by the paycheck, which enabled them to persist in their art.”[4]

Over the 8-year period, more than 100 Community Art Centers opened across the nation including one in Spokane, WA. Institutions like this opened their doors to America and taught painting, sculpting, design, and the power of art to millions of citizens rather than being confined to a classroom. The public’s new awareness of art, its place in everyday life, is reflected in the work produced by painters, sculptors, muralists, and graphic artists of the FAP. A richer significance had been given to the lives of those who had come closer to art through the works produced and presented.[5] “Hungry artists from the state of Washington are to be taken from the class of forgotten men and given works projects,” a June 24, 1936, article in the Spokane Chronicle reported. “Painters, sculptors, poster artists, lithographers, stone cutters, wood carvers, weavers, plaster casters, and craftsmen in metals and other materials,” were all encouraged to apply for employment through the Federal Arts Project.[6] According to an article published in the Seattle Daily Times on October 13, 1936, there were an estimated 12,000 artists in the U.S. in 1936 of which 58% were in need of relief. The FAP employed in one way or another about 4,500 people and estimated that another 2,500 qualified artists needing government aid could be placed on the rolls within a week if funds became available.[7]

Among the most visible projects completed by FAP artists in Washington State were roughly a dozen murals. These included: “The Theatre of the East,” “The Theatre of the West,” and “The Theatre in the Time of Shakespeare” by Glenn Sheckels for the University of Washington Drama Department; a decorative mural for the small animal house at the Woodland Park Zoo; maps of eastern and western Washington for the newly constructed Public Lands and Social Securities building in Olympia; and "Landing of the Seattle Pioneers," "Pioneer Life at Alki," and "Logging on Elliot Bay" by Jacob Elshin for West Seattle High School.

In an article in the Seattle Daily Times in October of 1936, Mural paintings for the University of Washington drama library were announced. The article explains the murals are to be done by artists of the Federal Art Project and each panel is to be five by twelve feet.[8] In a similar article in the Seattle Daily Times in January of 1938, it states that people flocked to the Frederick and Nelson Auditorium to for the opening of the exhibit of the Northwest landscape painter, Edgar L. Blake, and other exhibits housing the American Institute of Architects, Federal Arts Project, and Puget Sound Painters.[9] This shows the value and importance that art was beginning to hold throughout the Northwest.

Seattle artist, Fay Chong participated in the FAP for multiple years, and when asked if the FAP served as an awakening to Seattle and the interest in public art, Chong stated, “Well, I think it has. I think it helped the individual very much. I know that it helped me a lot, and I think it helped others too for the start, you know, for them to get started, and I think it helped Seattle in general too, helped to bring the various arts of today to what they are today. I think more so than maybe in some of the other cities.” [10] It was art projects like these that improved the culture of Washington State and the people residing within. At a time of economic despair, it can be seen through personal testimonies of Northwest artists, how art helped shape the culture of Washington. 

Although the Federal One programs and the WPA received much criticism, frequent visits from Eleanor Roosevelt represented the importance these programs held. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Art Projects was recalled to be the First Lady herself and when visiting her daughter in Seattle, she went to various Art Projects, particularly ones where women played a key role in creating. “She was interested in art because she wanted to help all people and all phases of life, and unless you help artists, you're neglecting an important phase of life... it was a social mission to help all classes of people”[11]

For both residents of Washington State and artists, the production of public art became a point of pride. As Ernest Norling, a Seattle artist who completed murals in Prosser and Bremerton stated, “It was - we were all very excited over the thing because it was a big thing for us. It was post office murals and the government was backing it so we all tried to do our best.”[12]

In an article published by the Seattle Daily Times, the details of the largest ever mural competition are explained. The competition was limited to painters of Washington only and was put on by the Seattle Art Museum. The decoration would be one panel, 18 feet by 6 feet, placed in the Wenatchee post office. The article explains the benefits of this art work found throughout the state and states that such mural competitions are not only a stimulus to the artists of the region, but as well, result in various communities of the state having the opportunity of seeing and becoming familiar with an important art form, which can contribute much to their lives.[13]

Edmund Fitzgerald, an artist out of Seattle in the public art programs in Washington State commented that typically “people in the community were involved in talking about the murals, criticizing little details perhaps, but generally proud to have an artwork in their town.”[14] Fitzgerald painted a mural in the Colville, Washington, post office wrote to Section administrators in Washington, D.C. that, “the remarks of citizens made me feel proud and happy to think that I may have contributed in a small way to assist them in cultural consciousness.”[15]

Like many Americans, artists were struggling to survive the Great Depression, searching for any kind of employment throughout the largest economic downfall America had ever known. Over the course of 8 years, the Federal Art Project aided thousands of needy artists and craftspeople, including several in Washington State. Whether it was painting classes in a community center, high quality murals in a local high school or the opening of a rural gallery, the Federal Art Project connected art and artists to the public in new and innovative ways. Men and women became involved in the creative work of art, and were able to contribute their skills and knowledge to society during a critical moment of change and uncertainty. As the WPA grew and consolidated its policies, the social, rather than the economic outlook became more and more pronounced. [16] It was social theory emphasizing the value of the individual pride derived from useful work and the need for cultural improvement in American society, which is seen through the various art projects that were created through the FDR administration, and his New Deal in Washington State.



[1] Leighninger, Cultural Infrastructure: The Legacy of New Deal Public Space, 226

 [2]  Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard, New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy (Adams & Goldbard 1986, 1995) http://www.wwcd.org/policy/US/newdeal.html

 [3] Adams and Goldbard, New Deal Cultural Programs

 [4] Martha Kingsbury, Art of the Thirties; The Pacific Northwest ( Seattle: Published for the Henry Art Gallery by the University of Washington Press, 1972), 11.

 [5] Martin R. Kalfatovic, The New Deal Fine Arts Projects: A Bibliography, 1933-1992 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994)

 [6] “Will Put Washington Artists Back on Job,” Spokane Chronicle, June 24, 1936

[7] Seattle Daily Times, October 13, 1936 p.35. “Art Becomes an Industry; Sales Beginning to Climb”.

 [8] Seattle Daily Times, October 23, 1936 p.5. “U.W. Library Mural Paintings Federal Project”

 [9]Seattle Daily Times, January 30 1938 p.7. “300,000 Attend Events At Frederick’s in 1937”

 [10] Oral history interview with Fay Chong, 1965 Feb. 14-20, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed November 5, 2016.

 [11] Oral history interview with Don G. Abel, 1965 June 10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed November 5, 2016.

 [12] Oral history interview with Ernest Ralph Norling, 1964 Oct. 30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, accessed November 10, 2016

 [13] Seattle Daily Times, December 23, 1938 p.9. “Seattle Art Museum”

 [14] Judith G. Keyser, The New Deal Murals in Washington State: Communication and Popular Democracy p. 75

 [15] Judith G. Keyser, The New Deal Murals in Washington State: Communication and Popular Democracy p. 75

 [16] Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1921–1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 316.

Primary:

Martha Kingsbury, Art of the Thirties; The Pacific Northwest ( Seattle: Published for the Henry Art Gallery by the University of Washington Press, 1972), 11.

Martin R. Kalfatovic, The New Deal Fine Arts Projects: A Bibliography, 1933-1992 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994) http://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/newdealfineartsp00kalf

Oral history interview with Ernest Ralph Norling, 1964 Oct. 30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, accessed November 10, 2016 http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-ernest-ralph-norling-13113

Oral history interview with Fay Chong, 1965 Feb. 14-20, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Accessed November 5, 2016. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-fay-chong-12344

Oral history interview with Don G. Abel, 1965 June 10, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-vernon-b- smith-11887. Accessed November 16 2016.

Seattle Daily Times, December 23, 1938 p.9. “Seattle Art Museum”. 

Seattle Daily Times, October 23, 1936 p.5. “U.W. Library Mural Paintings Federal Project”.

Seattle Daily Times, October 13, 1936 p.35. “Art Becomes an Industry; Sales Beginning to Climb”.

Seattle Daily Times, January 30 1938 p.7. “300,000 Attend Events At Frederick’s in 1937”.

“Will Put Washington Artists Back on Job,” Spokane Chronicle, June 24, 1936. State history. Works Progress Administration Adult education. Art & Artists. Washington State University Libraries. 1936-06-24

Secondary:

Adams, Don and Arlene Goldbard, New Deal Cultural Programs: Experiments in Cultural Democracy (Adams & Goldbard 1986, 1995) http://www.wwcd.org/policy/US/newdeal.html

 

Berner, Richard Seattle 1921–1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 316. Accessed through WSU Library

 

Keyser, Judith, The New Deal Murals in Washington State: Communication and Popular Democracy, 1982. p. 75

Leighninger, Robert.  Cultural Infrastructure: The Legacy of New Deal Public Space, 226 Journal of Architectural Education http://ntserver1.wsulibs.wsu.edu:2135/stable/1425295?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

 

"The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project." Public Works Administration. Accessed November 16, 2016. https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/pwa.cfm.