Monday, February 2, 2009

What's Art Got to Do With It?

"The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a relief measure established in 1935 by executive order as the Works Progress Administration, and was redesigned in 1939 when it was transferred to the Federal Works Agency. Headed by Harry L. Hopkins and supplied with an initial congressional appropriation of $4,880,000,000, it offered work to the unemployed on an unprecedented scale by spending money on a wide variety of programs, including highways and building construction, slum clearance, reforestation, and rural rehabilitation. So gigantic an undertaking was inevitably attended by confusion, waste, and political favoritism, yet the 'pump-priming' effect stimulated private business during the depression years (audio clip, 87k) and inaugurated reforms that states had been unable to subsidize." -- Lilly Library

Photo: portion of mural by Douglas Lynch

Eileen Doughty wrote a guest blog for my other blogsite, Subversive Stitchers, and pointed out that several politicians are pointing to art and artists as the place to drastically cut budget spending. The National Endowment for the Arts always seems to be a target with every budget. Someone for financial or outraged moral grievance tries to undermine the arts that are as much a part of America as Paul Revere (a silver smith), Mather Brown (painted George Washington's portrait), Norman Rockwell (whose work could be any more American?) and of course Grant Wood and his American Gothic (pictured here).

My father, a tall skinny man who had grown up in abject poverty, shined shoes and sold newspapers on street corners when he was four years old, delivered telegrams until he was nearly frozen stiff in the winters of his pre-teen years, and who found himself jobless during The Great Depression worked several WPA jobs. Of all of the jobs he had, none of them made him prouder than some of the projects he completed for the WPA. Each time he saw a building or a mural or bridge that boasted a sign: A WPA Project. He felt pride in it -- he was part of the work force that rebuilt the infrastructure of his country. It gave him back his pride and dignity. And probably saved him from starvation.

Many of those WPA projects put artists to work. And their work has become national treasures. Yet when times get tough, money tight, the first thing politicians want to do is eliminate any funding for the arts. Artists certainly are not in the mix in this year's budget discussions as it was back in the 1930s-40s.

Jeannette Hendler
writes, "Artists such as Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Mark Rothko, Willem deKooning and Jackson Pollock were just a few of the thousands of artists on the WPA Project who have achieved worldwide recognition. Many, many other artists, who were also on the project, such as Aaron Berkman, Jules Halfant, Max Arthur Cohn (His 3 Musicians pictured here), Norman Barr and Gertrude Shibley are in museum collections, exhibitions and are in many private collections, but are not as yet nationally known."

These WPA art projects became a part of the country's legacy and the legacy of thousands of workers who labored for little money but for great pride. Many of these works have been destroyed or stolen, but those that remain should be protected. If you want to see what remains in your state, visit this link. These projects are the proof that dreams can not be snuffed out by difficult economic times.

Many murals were painted in post offices so that all, the public, everyone could share in the enjoyment of these pieces of art. These were created by artists, not working for WPA, but for the section of fine arts. The National Postal Museum website explains, "Commonly known as 'the Section,' it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. Headed by Edward Bruce, a former lawyer, businessman, and artist, the Section's main function was to select art of high quality to decorate public buildings—if the funding was available. By providing decoration in public buildings, the art was made accessible to all people."

Douglas Lynch
who worked on WPA Artist projects including Timberline, a resort built as a WPA project on Mount Hood in Oregon, recounts his experiences for OregonLive. One of his memories of a strong woman who stood up to politicians. Lynch recalled, "The woman who was the chief decorator at Timberline, Margery Hoffman Smith, she was a grand woman, a great authority. She could walk up to any of the senators or bureaucrats in charge of that building and tell them what she was going to do -- and what they were going to do. She was the one who got us to do the cafeteria murals."

Perhaps we need to find a Margery Hoffman Smith to tell politicians what to do.

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