“At the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted a raft of New Deal programs aimed at giving jobs to millions of unemployed Americans; programs for construction workers and farmers — and programs for writers and artists.
“Paintings and sculpture were produced, murals were produced and literally thousands of prints,” says Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Courtesy of the U.S. GSA Fine Arts Program
In all, hundreds of thousands of works were produced by as many as 10,000 artists. But in the decades since, many of those works have gone missing — lost or stolen, they’re now scattered across the country.
A Transformative Time For American Artists
The biggest New Deal art program was the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Artists could earn up to $42 a week, as long as they produced something.
Mecklenburg says it was a transformative time for the artists: “The idea for an artist to be able to work through a problem, to work through ideas, you know, that’s golden. So it was a very special moment, and one that really has not ever been repeated.”
To qualify for the work, however, you had to prove yourself as an artist and you had to show you were poor. Mecklenburg spoke to two brothers-in-law who were in the program.
She says, “One of them was saying, you know, you had to prove you were penniless — he said it hurt your dignity. And the other one was so cavalier and devil-may-care about it. He said: Oh, you know, if you thought the relief worker was coming to check out if you had an iron, or anything else that looked like it was of value, you just ran it over to the neighbor’s apartment so it looked like you didn’t have any possessions at all. It’s about as human a story as we’ve ever come up with in the art world.”
Every Recovered Painting Has A Story
Some of the art became famous — such as the murals . . . . .”