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Hope During Hard Times, 1929–1939
October 20, 2009

Leah Rand interned this past summer and was co-curator for the exhibition Hard Times: 1929–1939, organized by the Archives of American Art, which is on view through November 8th in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery on the first floor of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.


Artist Marion Greenwood discusses her mural Blueprint for Living (1939–40) with a group of boys at the Red Hook Housing Project, Brooklyn, New York. The work was commissioned by the Federal Art Project. Photograph by Harding Black. April 8, 1940. Federal Art Project, Photographic Division Collection, 1935--1942. Archives of American Art

Today we talk about how bad unemployment is and our hope for more jobs. If we think times are difficult now, how did artists during the Great Depression, which lasted for more than a decade, cope with their changing world?

When doing research for the exhibition, I was at first struck that people didn't seem desperate, but continued to live their ordinary lives during these hard times. But digging deeper, I began to uncover personal, heart-breaking letters: families giving up their farms, mothers begging for money to keep their sick children in hospitals, and artists searching desperately for employment.

It was the federal government that responded to the artists' need for work. The New Deal's Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the Federal Art Project (FAP), and the Section of Painting and Sculpture commissioned thousands of artists to decorate public buildings. The public's response to the program was overwhelmingly positive. Even today, we can all name a post office or a school in our hometown and many federal buildings here in D.C. that New Deal artists decorated with murals, sculptures, and paintings. Many artists began their careers with these programs, such as Jacob Lawrence, while well-known artists were also employed. These New Deal programs mark the first time that our democracy was a patron of the arts on a national level.

I think of artists working on their own in their studios. But in the 1930s, they realized that to stay alive during the Great Depression they had to work together. Artists formed unions that represented them, just like any other group of workers. Unions haggled with the Works Progress Administration, which administered most programs, over hours, salaries, and lay offs to protect America's artists.

Artists along with administrators and just plain folks joined together. In the midst of the Great Depression emerged a thriving national arts program on a grand scale. The government invested in our country's culture and brought art to towns from coast to coast. In the words of the New Deal artist Philip Evergood, "[T]his phenomenon . . . eventually was to save American culture from extinction."

The Smithsonian American Art Museum owns two works by Marion Greenwood.

Posted by Jeff on October 20, 2009 in American Art Everywhere, American Art Here


How different from today when the artist seems to be demonized but some in and out of the government.

In those time artists were facing low "competition" in the film or singing industries, but how about today???
There are thousands of artists in the street.

I think one of the reasons they didn't seem desperate is that they were hearty people. Think about how many of them were either new to our country or who had family that had just immigrated within the last generation. They didn't have a silver spoon in their mouths and they were used to working through life's trials. Maybe it was their unique ability to deal with these trials that gave the artwork of the generation such depth and passion.

The question isn't if artists are struggling financially, it is if they are progressing in the development of their talents.

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