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
This article is wonderful for several reasons. I, too, never saw work by, or knew of Beulah R. Bettersworth. So for that I am grateful. It is a fine painting. My first living "on my own" experience after college was in two rented rooms in Greenwich Village.
In recent weeks, there has been renewed talk about a new WPA type program for artists, including a "one percent rule" piece of legislation for funding the arts. Before submitting a comment on a "Nation" magazine article on that topic I googled "women artists and the WPA." I found a quote from a woman artist who said that there had been equality in getting work. I believe it was due, in part, because artists applied anonymously (no name on application).
Women have been lost in art history too often. Gender equality for women artists is still a problem. When Germaine Greer's article on Degas appeared in the "Guardian" a few months ago, I was surprised by the nasty, sexist comments about her even now.
Again, thanks for this article --the topic, the observations and the comfortable format/read.
Posted by: Sanda Aronson | Mar 5, 2009
Very sad that we have not taken a lesson. :(
Posted by: Bobi | Mar 9, 2009
A very fascinating article. I agree with the last paragraph especially. The media coverage of today is a representation of the 'present'. A poor representation to say the least. Whereas, an artist's painting or a sculptor's sculpture is representation of the 'past' - as the painting above represents.
It is my hope that artists express, in their artwork, the senseless times our country faces today. And just like the painting above people of the future can look back and realize what selfish greed can do to a country. A country of great diversity and good people. People of the future will realize that even the strongest form of capitalism is only as good as the integrity of its leaders.
I hope it is the artists who reinforce this moral and fundamental principle.
Posted by: Fischbach Gallery | Mar 21, 2009
Very good article. I had no idea FDR had such a program in place - a very enlightened policy.
These artworks also bring into focus that this is not the first time the country has faced tough economic times, and it will not be the last - but also that art endures.
Posted by: Western Art | Mar 26, 2009
What a great article! I wish they'd have a work program like that now for us contemporary artists!
Posted by: John Diehl | Jun 24, 2009
What a nice article. And it warms my heart to read the posts regarding women artists in the 1930s. The artist Beulah Bettersworth was my great aunt. My mother and her siblings have many paintings by her and her husband Howard. Beulah painted Christopher Street, Greenwich Village while attending art school there.
Posted by: Craig Spengler | Nov 18, 2009
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