Striking Poster Collection from the Great Depression Shows That the US Government Once Supported the Arts in America

WPA Caesare & Cleopatra

Of the rare and extra­or­di­nary times in U.S. his­to­ry when the U.S. gov­ern­ment active­ly fund­ed and pro­mot­ed the arts on a nation­al scale, two peri­ods in par­tic­u­lar stand out. There is the CIA’s role in chan­nel­ing funds to avant-garde artists after the Sec­ond World War as part of the cul­tur­al front of the Cold War—a boon to painters, writ­ers, and musi­cians, both wit­ting and unwit­ting, and a strange way in which the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty used the anti-com­mu­nist left to head off what it saw as more dan­ger­ous and sub­ver­sive trends. Most of the high­ly agen­da-dri­ven fed­er­al arts fund­ing dur­ing the Cold War pro­ceed­ed in secret until decades lat­er, when long-sealed doc­u­ments were declas­si­fied and agents began to tell their sto­ries of the peri­od.


Of a much less covert­ly polit­i­cal nature was the first major fed­er­al invest­ment in the arts, begun under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and cham­pi­oned in large part by his wife, Eleanor. Under the 1935-estab­lished Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion (WPA)—which cre­at­ed thou­sands of jobs through large-scale pub­lic infra­struc­ture projects—the Fed­er­al Project Num­ber One took shape, an ini­tia­tive, write Don Adams and Arlene Gold­bard, that “marked the U.S. government’s first big, direct invest­ment in cul­tur­al devel­op­ment.” The project’s goals “were clear­ly stat­ed and demo­c­ra­t­ic; they sup­port­ed activ­i­ties not already sub­si­dized by pri­vate sec­tor patrons… and they empha­sized the inter­re­lat­ed­ness of cul­ture with all aspects of life, not the sep­a­rate­ness of a rar­efied art world.”

Big Tent Theatre

Under the pro­gram, known sim­ply as “Fed­er­al One,” Orson Welles made his direc­to­r­i­al debut, with a huge­ly pop­u­lar, all-Black pro­duc­tion of Mac­beth; Walk­er Evans, Dorothea Lange, and oth­ers doc­u­ment­ed the Great Depres­sion in their now icon­ic pho­to­graph­ic series; Diego Rivera paint­ed his huge murals of work­ing peo­ple; folk­lorists Alan Lomax, Stet­son Kennedy, and Har­ry Smith col­lect­ed and record­ed the pop­u­lar music and sto­ries of SouthZora Neale Hurston con­duct­ed anthro­po­log­i­cal field research in the Deep South and the Caribbean; Amer­i­can writ­ers from Ralph Elli­son to James Agee found sup­port from the WPA. This is to name but a few of the most famous artists sub­si­dized by the New Deal.

Sioux City Public Art School

Thou­sands more whose names have gone unrecord­ed were able to fund com­mu­ni­ty the­ater pro­duc­tions, lit­er­ary lec­tures, art class­es and many oth­er works of cul­tur­al enrich­ment that kept peo­ple in the arts work­ing, engaged whole com­mu­ni­ties, and gave ordi­nary Amer­i­cans oppor­tu­ni­ties to par­tic­i­pate in the arts and to find rep­re­sen­ta­tion where they oth­er­wise would be over­looked or ignored. Fed­er­al One not only “put legions of unem­ployed artists back to work,” writes George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty’s Eleanor Roo­sevelt Papers Project, “but their cre­ations would invari­ably enter­tain and enrich the larg­er pop­u­la­tion.”

modern dance

“If FDR was only luke­warm about Fed­er­al One,” GWU points out, “his wife more than made up for it with her enthu­si­asm. Eleanor Roo­sevelt felt strong­ly that Amer­i­can soci­ety had not done enough to sup­port the arts, and she viewed Fed­er­al One as a pow­er­ful tool with which to infuse art and cul­ture into the dai­ly lives of Amer­i­cans.”

macbeth wpa

Now, thanks to the Library of Con­gress, we can see what that infu­sion of cul­ture looked like in col­or­ful poster form. Of the 2,000 WPA arts posters known to exist, the LoC has dig­i­tized over 900 pro­duced between 1936 and 1943, “designed to pub­li­cize exhibits, com­mu­ni­ty activ­i­ties, the­atri­cal pro­duc­tions, and health and edu­ca­tion al pro­grams in sev­en­teen states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia.”

Big White Fog

These posters, added to the Library’s hold­ings in the ‘40s, show us a nation that looked very dif­fer­ent from the one we live in today—one in which the arts and cul­ture thrived at a local and region­al lev­el and were not sim­ply the pre­serves of celebri­ties, pri­vate wealth, and major cor­po­ra­tions. Per­haps revis­it­ing this past can give us a mod­el to strive for in a more demo­c­ra­t­ic, equi­table future that val­ues the arts as Eleanor Roo­sevelt and the WPA admin­is­tra­tors did. Click here to browse the com­plete col­lec­tion of WPA arts posters and to down­load dig­i­tal images as JPEG or TIFF files.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load Vin­tage Film Posters in High-Res: From The Philadel­phia Sto­ry to Attack of the Crab Mon­sters

Yale Launch­es an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Mac­beth,” the First Shake­speare Pro­duc­tion With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Sky says:

    What cur­rent social pro­gram are you will­ing to scale back or do away with to be able to afford this?

  • Ted Mills says:

    Who says we have to cut a social pro­gram?

  • WellesFan says:

    Where did you find the Welles Mac­beth poster? I’ve searched the col­lec­tion, but can’t locate it. Could you post a direct link?

  • Lincoln Cushing says:

    Don’t for­get that the Library of Con­gress itself is an exam­ple of our tax dol­lars doing good work. But in all cir­cum­stances the doc­u­men­ta­tion of his­to­ry is fick­le and errat­ic — note that it’s only a hand­ful of the total FAP/WPA poster out­put that has been pre­served. The sig­nif­i­cance of that peri­od on this medi­um can­not be under­es­ti­mat­ed — see essay

  • Lincoln Cushing says:

    Ah — as I sus­pect­ed, links don’t appear. Search for “Meshed His­to­ries: The Influ­ence of Screen Print­ing on Social Move­ments” on the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Graph­ic Arts site.

  • WellesFan says:

    it’s not on the LOC web­site, it’s a poster cre­at­ed by Rob Kel­ly in 2008
    Search for welles mac­beth mer­cury the­atre wpa poster and click images

  • Carl Russo says:

    Tax the super-rich equi­tably and you won’t have to cut from the bot­tom.

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