1934 All Over Again
March 5, 2009
Two things immediately struck me about the new exhibition at American Art, 1934: A New Deal for Artists. First, I was surprised to learn that the Public Works of Art Project, or PWAP, the first of President Roosevelt's relief programs for artists, lasted just seven months. Second, these artworks, done around the time of the Great Depression (as opposed to the Great Recession of current times), are rich in color and speak of a world trying to look forward rather than forced to look back.
And I should probably add a third: I'm a bit embarrassed to say I hadn't known some of the artists in the exhibition. Take for example, Beulah R. Bettersworth, whose Christopher Street, Greenwich Village, is a quiet scene of everyday life. Perhaps I'm drawn to it because, like the artist, I too made my way to lower Manhattan and the Village—choosing that neighborhod as my home for many years. Bettersworth and her husband lived right on Christopher Street, at number ninety-five.
In 1934 nearly 10,000 artists faced destitution. The PWAP, which preceded the Works Progress Administration, hired nearly 4,000 artists who created more than 15,000 paintings, murals, sculptures, prints, drawings, and craft works. The program's head, Edward Bruce, suggested that they depict "the American scene"; in doing so, they sounded themes that we think of as quintessentially American: the value of hard work, pride of place, and unrelenting optimism.
One of FDR's goals was that the New Deal give people all over the country "a more abundant life." It's amazing that the arts were so recognized during these hard times because usually the arts are the first to go. In today's schools, music and art classes are usually axed when budgets tighten.
In April 1934, the Corcoran Gallery of Art opened an exhibition of about 500 works created under the PWAP. The Roosevelts, who attended the exhibition, chose thirty-two paintings to hang in the White House, including Bettersworth's homage to Greenwich Village. Senators and other government officials chose paintings for their offices. In the 1960s, 150 PWAP paintings and a large number of works produced under subsequent arts programs administered under the Treasury Department and the WPA were transferred to American Art. The museum's New Deal holdings include about 3,000 works, making it one of the largest such collections in the world.
So where does that leave us today? In these dark economic times, I just want to call out to the painters and tell them to paint, sculptors sculpt, and muralists mural! Do what it is you do best because the positive effects are everlasting.
- Public Works of Art Project, Works Progress Administration, Beulah R. Bettersworth, 1934,
American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum
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