Signs of the Time: Federal Art in NYC

Music Contest Poster, Estelle Levine, Artist, Federal Art Project, Library of Congress

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration* (WPA) sponsored a variety of public programs designed to put people to work and to better society at large. The arts were particularly favored. Painters, dancers, photographers, musicians, writers, sculptors, actors, illustrators, et al, found a haven away from the down-and-out economy through a variety of programs that included the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Writers Project.

Over the course of just a few golden years, from about 1935 to 1939, in New York City, the work of those artists was visible everywhere, from the theater marquees advertising a production to posters displayed on the streets.

One of a series of posters that were part of the New York Mayor’s “Poster Project Emergency Relief Bureau,” 1936, a Federal Art Project.

A 1936 poster series on the “History of Civic Services in the City of New York” put illustrators to work and documented the city’s progress over the years in relation to public works. These patriotic history lessons had a number of intentions, primarily to promote the arts and promote civic pride. But they also had an underlying goal: to place current hard times within a larger historical context that emphasized the fact that the depression was only one tale in a far larger historical narrative. (Collectively, it was WPA illustrators whose posters very nearly “branded” the 1930s and created the visual theme of the Great Depression–truly stunning work.)

 Power at the Ritz (now the Walter Kerr Theater)

Actors, directors, costume designers, playwrights and scene designers found a temporary home in New York theaters that produced productions sponsored by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP).  A total of 15,000 people were employed by the FTP, and roughly 1,200 productions across the country were staged (radio productions were also supported by the project).

FTP director, Hallie Flanagan (Davis) hailed the project, proclaiming: “For the first time in the relief experiments of this country the preservation of the skill of the worker, and hence the preservation of his (sic) self-respect, became important.”

The FTP folded in 1939. (The U.S. House Un-American Committee accused its practitioners of what else? being red.)

Burt Lancaster, pictured with Nick Cravat, performed in a circus as a part of the Federal Theatre Project

African American performers were supported in a separate section of the FTP, known as the “Negro Unit.” NYC’s unit was one of the country’s most popular and successful, staging roughly 30 productions.  

In its first year, in 1935, two white directors, Orson Welles and John Houseman, served as the unit’s directors. A “Voodoo” Macbeth, set in the Caribbean, was staged by Welles in 1936 at the Lafayette Theatre  in Harlem. The production later went on tour. (See below for a film clip of the production.)

A preview performance of Welles’ Macbeth, offered free of charge, drew 3,000 more people than the New York theatre could accommodate

Art for the Masses
In 1935, the Federal Art Gallery opened at 7 East 38th Street, a gallery that was part of the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration. (In 1937, the gallery moved to 225 West 57th Street.) During its years of operation, it mounted roughly 40 exhibits including photography and children’s art exhibits. Summer art classes were also offered free of charge throughout the city. 
Critics could be harsh (what’s new?), and some derided the art project as a mere catch-all; not all of the art exhibited was “high art,” they argued. But there can be no question that the project supported artists and encouraged the idea that art was essential to a healthy society. And, to be sure, the project supported the work of numerous artists, including some of the most famous artists of the 20th century, such as Berenice Abbott,  Jackson Pollock, and Willem DeKooningAbbott’s “Changing New York” series, which constitutes one of the most valuable photo-histories of the American scene, was supported by the Federal Art Project.
Changing New York: Abbott’s Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, 1935, NYPL
New Yorkers were also treated to musical performances and concerts through the Federal Music Project. At the Theatre of Music, at 254 West 54th Street (later home to Studio 54), concerts were performed for “popular prices.”
 Music Concerts took place all over the city–not just in concert halls. 
A New York Classic about Classic New York: Produced at the Height of the Great Depression 

Writers, not to be outdone by their artistic counterparts, took up pen and paper and embarked on massive projects to document New York in words.  From 1936 to 1943,  the WPA Federal Writers’ Project (NYC Unit) would produce works that are still considered both useful and classic, including: the 800+ page Guide to New York City (1939) (available for free in digital form here) and  New York Panorama: A Comprehensive View of the Metropolis (1938) (available for free in digital form here). (A full list of digitized WPA books can be found here).

So let’s just recap: hard economic times, federal projects to support artists, a public that is educated, inspired, and entertained, artists that flourish and produce invaluable works for their own and future generations, and on top of all that, Burt Lancaster in his early circus performing years! ….what’s not to like?
~Jenny Thompson

Watch this 1937 film here, “We Work Again,” produced by the Works Progress Administration. Included in the film are clips from Welles’ MacBeth (11.11).
* In 1939, the WPA name was changed to Works Projects Administration.










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