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The WPA and Artists

During the Great Depression, many artists who were working in printing, illustration, graphic arts, advertising, and other professional fields became unemployed because businesses could no longer afford to keep them.

In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration's Fine Arts Program (FAP) for the purpose of employing artists, writers, musicians, and actors, who, for a weekly wage and art supplies, made artworks for public buildings, and archives of interviews, narratives, and photographs for the nation. Often the artworks were on specific WPA-guided themes, such as American Scene or Americans at Work. Goals of the program were to celebrate American art and to integrate more art into small town America.

Artists received about $25 per week. They were required to produce one finished work of art per month and put in a certain number of hours. Some artists taught classes in WPA schools. The program gave artists supplies and access to studios such as printing shops. This afforded artists time to work at home to develop their skills and their styles. Many artists who were in the WPA credit the program with enhancing their lives.

photo of Gertrude AbercrombieGertrude Abercrombie, a Chicago painter, was able to move into an apartment of her own and become a full-time, professional painter who exhibited and sold her work regularly. She credits the WPA program, in which she worked from 1934 to 1940 and earned $94 per month, with validating her quest for independence and her status as an artist.

photo of Emil ArminEmil Armin, also of Chicago, found work with the WPA from 1933 to 1940. He produced oils and watercolors for the easel program, and even became an assistant supervisor of the Illinois Art Project. It allowed him to paint full-time and spend summers painting in the Indiana Dunes with fellow artists.

photo of Julia TheclaJulia Thecla worked in the easel painting section of the FAP in Chicago. The program gave her the economic security to continue developing as an artist. Previously she was forced to take many supplemental jobs such as jewelry restoration and china painting to survive.

There are many such stories about artists who benefited from the WPA's Art Projects. The nation also benefited with a treasure trove of paintings, prints, murals, sculptures, and other works that today reside in public and private collections and in buildings nationwide.

Related Activities:
People at Work (html) (pdf)
Link to Depression Era Art Module Activities


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