The Art of the New Deal: Why the Federal Government Funded the Arts During the Great Depression

It’s odd to think that the gray-faced, gray-suit­ed U.S. Cold War­riors of the 1950s fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism and left-wing lit­er­ary mag­a­zines in a cul­tur­al offen­sive against the Sovi­et Union. And yet they did. This seem­ing his­tor­i­cal irony is com­pound­ed by the fact that so many of the artists enlist­ed (most­ly unwit­ting­ly) in the cul­tur­al Cold War might not have had careers were it not for the New Deal pro­grams of 20 years ear­li­er, denounced by Repub­li­cans at the time as com­mu­nist.

The New Deal faced fierce oppo­si­tion, and its pas­sage involved some very unfor­tu­nate com­pro­mis­es. But for artists, it was a major boon. Pro­grams estab­lished under the Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion in 1935 helped thou­sands of artists sur­vive until they could get back to ply­ing trades, work­ing as pro­fes­sion­als, or build­ing world-famous careers. Artists and art work­ers once sup­port­ed by the WPA include Dorothea Lange, Langston Hugh­es, Orson Welles, Ralph Elli­son, Zora Neale Hurston, Gor­don Parks, Alan Lomax, Mark Rothko, Jack­son Pol­lock, James Agee, and dozens more famous names.

There were also thou­sands of unknown painters, pho­tog­ra­phers, sculp­tors, poets, dancers, play­wrights, etc. who received fund­ing in their local areas to put their skills to work. “Through the WPA,” the Nation­al Gallery of Art writes, artists “par­tic­i­pat­ed in gov­ern­ment employ­ment pro­grams in every state and coun­ty in the nation.” As to the ques­tion of whether their work deserved to be paid, “Har­ry Hop­kins,” Jer­ry Adler writes at Smith­son­ian, “whom Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt put in charge of work relief, set­tled the mat­ter, say­ing, ‘”Hell, they’ve got to eat just like oth­er peo­ple!”

He turns the ques­tion about who “deserves” relief on its head. Dance may not be nec­es­sary by some people’s lights but eat­ing most cer­tain­ly is. Why shouldn’t artists use their tal­ent to beau­ti­fy the coun­try, col­lect and archive its cul­tur­al his­to­ry, and pro­vide qual­i­ty enter­tain­ment in uncer­tain times? And why should­n’t the coun­try’s artists doc­u­ment the enor­mous build­ing projects under­way, and the major shifts hap­pen­ing in peo­ple’s lives, for pos­ter­i­ty?

Roo­sevelt, tak­ing many of his cues from Eleanor, spoke of fund­ing the arts in much grander terms than the prag­mat­ic Hop­kins. He elab­o­rat­ed on his belief in their “essen­tial” nature in a speech at the ded­i­ca­tion of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art’s new build­ing in 1939:

Art in Amer­i­ca has always belonged to the peo­ple and has nev­er been the prop­er­ty of an acad­e­my or a class. The great Trea­sury projects, through which our pub­lic build­ings are being dec­o­rat­ed, are an excel­lent exam­ple of the con­ti­nu­ity of this tra­di­tion. The Fed­er­al Art Project of the Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion is a prac­ti­cal relief project which also empha­sizes the best tra­di­tion of the demo­c­ra­t­ic spir­it. The W.P.A. artist, in ren­der­ing his own impres­sion of things, speaks also for the spir­it of his fel­low coun­try­men every­where. I think the W.P.A. artist exem­pli­fies with great force the essen­tial place which the arts have in a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety such as ours.

In the future we must seek more wide­spread pop­u­lar under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of the arts. Many of our great cities pro­vide the facil­i­ties for such appre­ci­a­tion. But we all know that because of their lack of size and rich­es the small­er com­mu­ni­ties are in most cas­es denied this oppor­tu­ni­ty. That is why I give spe­cial empha­sis to the need of giv­ing these small­er com­mu­ni­ties the visu­al chance to get to know mod­ern art.

As in our democ­ra­cy we enjoy the right to believe in dif­fer­ent reli­gious creeds or in none, so can Amer­i­can artists express them­selves with com­plete free­dom from the stric­tures of dead artis­tic tra­di­tion or polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy. While Amer­i­can artists have dis­cov­ered a new oblig­a­tion to the soci­ety in which they live, they have no com­pul­sion to be lim­it­ed in method or man­ner of expres­sion.

He began the address with sev­er­al airy phras­es about free­dom and lib­er­ty; here, he defines what that looks like for the artist—the abil­i­ty to have dig­ni­fied work and liveli­hood, and to oper­ate with full cre­ative free­dom. Of course, artists, espe­cial­ly those employed in dec­o­rat­ing pub­lic build­ings, were con­strained by cer­tain “Amer­i­can” themes. But they could inter­pret those themes broad­ly, and they did, pic­tur­ing scenes of hard­ship and leisure, recov­er­ing the past and imag­in­ing bet­ter futures.

It could­n’t last. “The WPA-era art pro­grams reflect­ed a trend toward the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the arts in the Unit­ed States and a striv­ing to devel­op a unique­ly Amer­i­can and broad­ly inclu­sive cul­tur­al life,” the Nation­al Gallery explains. Art from this peri­od “offers a win­dow through which to explore the social con­di­tions of the Depres­sion, the main­stream­ing of art and birth of ‘pub­lic art,’ and the open­ing of gov­ern­ment employ­ment to women and African Amer­i­cans.” Oppo­nents of the pro­grams pushed back with red bait­ing. Arts fund­ing under the WPA was end­ed in 1943 by a Con­gress, says schol­ar of the peri­od Fran­cis O’Connor, who could “look at two blades of grass and see a ham­mer and sick­le.”

See much more New Deal art–including plays, pho­tog­ra­phy, art posters and more–at the Nation­al Gallery of Art, the Nation­al ArchivesSmith­son­ian, and at the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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 Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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  • Virginia Maksymowicz says:

    There needs to be a fol­low-up to this arti­cle and it needs to be titled “The Art of CETA: Why the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment Fund­ed the Arts Dur­ing the 1970s Reces­sion.”

    The Com­pre­hen­sive Employ­ment and Train­ing Act (CETA) was respon­si­ble for the largest fed­er­al­ly fund­ed arts ini­tia­tive out­side of the WPA, employ­ing more than 20,000 artists and arts sup­port staff nation­al­ly dur­ing the peri­od 1974–1981. At its peak, in 1980, the pro­gram fun­neled between $200 and $300 mil­lion (about a bil­lion in in 2021 dol­lars) into the arts. In com­par­i­son, the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts bud­get that year was only $159 mil­lion. Yet, CETA’s projects are vir­tu­al­ly unknown.

    CETA was bi-par­ti­san, signed into law by Richard Nixon and expand­ed under Jim­my Carter’s admin­is­tra­tion. CETA espe­cial­ly ben­e­fit­ed women artists and artists of col­or.

    Artists and art work­ers once sup­port­ed by CETA include Dawoud Bey, Willie Birch, Ellsworth Aus­by, Ade­mo­la Oluge­be­fo­la, Judy Baca, Ursu­la von Ryd­ingsvard, Christy Rupp, Willie Cole, Sen­ga Nen­gu­di, Maren Has­singer and Fred Wil­son; poet Nor­man Pritchard and musi­cian Julius East­man; mem­bers of the Alvin Ailey dance com­pa­ny; the Black The­ater Alliance; La Mama E.T.C.; the Afro-Latin Band and Jazzmo­bile; play­wright August Wil­son; and with enti­ties like the Wom­an’s Build­ing and Brock­man Gallery (LA), the Penum­bra The­ater (St. Paul), and Brandy­wine Work­shop and Phi­ladan­co (both Philadel­phia).

    The exhi­bi­tion ART / WORK doc­u­ments the Cul­tur­al Coun­cil Foun­da­tion CETA Artists Project in NYC, and is on dis­play at City Lore and Cuchifritos Gallery on the Low­er East Side through March. Go to for more infor­ma­tion.

  • Blaise Tobia says:

    The WPA pro­grams of the 1930s are an excel­lent exam­ple of cru­cial gov­ern­ment sup­port for artists in a time of need. A sim­i­lar pro­gram that took place dur­ing the 1970s and was almost as large has almost been for­got­ten by his­to­ry. The Com­pre­hen­sive Employ­ment and Train­ing Act (CETA) employed 10,000 artists in all fields and 10,000 arts sup­port pro­fes­sion­als dur­ing the peri­od 1973–81. Unlike the WPA, it was decen­tral­ized and did not ben­e­fit from an orga­nized nation­al pro­pa­gan­da effort. Addi­tion­al­ly, it focused on putting artists into com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice — although many murals and oth­er pub­lic works were cre­at­ed. Impor­tant­ly, in terms of pro­vid­ing a poten­tial mod­el for the cur­rent cul­tur­al cri­sis, it had bipar­ti­san sup­port! For more, see .

  • Bob Holman says:

    Great arti­cle and photos/art!

    and Blaise — I agree! The art pro­grams in CETA (includ­ing the one in NYC, with over 300 artists, the largest Fed­er­al arts project since the WPA, in which I par­tic­i­pat­ed), is an even bet­ter, and more recent, mod­el.

    Cheers for the WPA, and CETA too, and let’s put artists back to work now! Cul­ture is a basic human right.

  • Marcia Bricker says:

    An archive of the New York City CETA Artists Project can be found at:

    As a young pho­tog­ra­ph­er it was a life-chang­ing expe­ri­ence for me.

    and Bob — I agree! With­out cul­ture.…..?

  • Jacqui Shoholm says:

    This arti­cle could have been writ­ten today about the Com­pre­hen­sive Train­ing and Employ­ment Act of 1972, or CETA as it is most wide­ly known.

    The Works Project Admin­is­tra­tion (WPA) and CETA are two excel­lent exam­ples of look­ing back to his­toric pub­lic pol­i­cy to ele­vate the prospect of employ­ment for artists through the gov­ern­ment. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in times of eco­nom­ic cri­sis, this pub­lic pol­i­cy approach has worked well, as dur­ing the 1970’s when unem­ploy­ment lev­els were reg­is­tered in dou­ble dig­its and many of those unem­ployed had col­lege degrees. I man­aged the pro­grams at that time in my city, and I know this approach worked for many artists that went on to be promi­nent in their fields of choice, much like those men­tioned in this arti­cle. Some of the many not­ed artists of that era in Min­neso­ta include August Wil­son, Claude Pur­dy, Mar­i­on McClin­ton, and all of the Penum­bra the­atre alum­nae, as well as orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Prairie Home Com­pan­ion com­pa­ny. Oth­er exam­ples abound.

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