A Query For The President

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Image courtesy of Pixabay

With the exception of major works, the previous year 2009 has wreaked havoc on the American art market. If politicians who always have inside knowledge of the economy’s condition couldn’t forecast the year’s financial collapse, how would those involved in art have known? Perhaps no one could have expected the “big hit” on all art except for the finest.

Part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program, designed to combat the Great Depression, involved a project that was known as the Public Works of Art Project. It called for a six-month plan by government subsidy of artists and ran from December 1933 through June 1934. Painters and others were paid to make art.

I find myself wondering if a similar program would work in today’s world. Shall the government pay painters to make art? Should tax dollars go for those cultural products? Is the subsidy of art a worthy comparison to health care? Let’s consider the validity of an art subsidy program for the President's Administration.

A recession or depression (we’re not sure yet, are we?) always serves as a litmus test for art evaluations. The good news is that recent auctions have proved that great paintings are virtually impervious to market fluctuation (see my first blog). Notwithstanding the precarious world economy, this “condition” of the art market has been seen before in America. In fact, this nation did suffer financially in 1929, setting a precedent for art market collapse. Those years are known as America’s Great Depression and they still haunt old timers…I was born on a farm in Indiana at the end of the horrible decade. My memories are all too clear having witnessed my parents and grandparents struggling to keep us alive. Yes, even the most ambitious succumbed to the long-lived misery of a financially ruined nation. Artists were no exception. Accordingly, no one was surprised when art advocates complained, made comments – some ideal, others caustic – but all very pertinent to the issue at hand.

“How much of the present ferment in… the arts is mere reaction [to the Depression]… History may have suggestions, if not conclusions to offer. Politics and economics, however tedious, cannot be altogether ignored.”

William Aylott OrtonAmerica in Search of Culture

Like now, it was impossible in the early 1930s to turn a blind eye to the spindly legs of a staggering art community. Indeed, artists were suffering just like every other working citizen, perhaps even more because their art was not a hot product before the Crash. Many had complaints but none had solutions. But the Democrats said they had ideas to repair what the Republicans had ruined. After President Hoover turned over the keys to the White House to Franklin D. Roosevelt it was apparent to most Americans that its culture would not be revived quickly, as countless writers, thespians, musicians, sculptors and other talents found no work. Many commissioned works of art were relegated to the back burner as artists quickly discovered that their creative products were not being sold. The market grew worse day by day and the few collectors who could afford to purchase paintings did so for pennies on the dollar, finding unprecedented bargains in auctions and in most galleries. The famous art gallery known as Wildenstein & Co. on Fifth Avenue in New York still advertised “High Class Old Paintings;” however, a collector with shallow pockets would visit Macbeth Galleries on East 57th Street where they might find paintings by Robert Henri and his band of artist-rebels known as The Eight (later the Ash Can School). Even more poignant was regionalism (as we know it today) being promoted as the nation’s most patriotic art.

However, the art market was lifeless and the American art community was dog-paddling in deep waters as more and more painters were virtually out of work. There were a scant few artists such as Edward Hopper who eked out a living by selling their canvases, but for the most part no art was sold without special circumstances. Art was drawing its last breath. Many artists took other jobs if they were fortunate enough to find them while no small number went begging.

That Americans had traditionally found it difficult to rationalize the spending of hard-earned dollars on any art was bad enough but when the Great Depression was at its worst (c.1930-1935), painters knew that they could not exist from the sale of their pictures. As the financial conditions worsened in the early 1930s, every art advocacy group called for assistance of some sort. For example, in 1930 the American Magazine of Art made it clear that the wealthy should continue to purchase art but that these special products of creative talents should also factor into the lives of the masses. Indeed, just as every American family should have a chicken in every pot, so should they have a painting (or several) on their walls. And others made their pitch to get artists working again:

“The American Federation of Arts is interested in art for democracy as well as art for aristocracy…. Americans are [not] willing to admit that art in our country will [never] become a national asset until it reaches the level of the majority of the people.”

C.R.R. “Art in Commerce and Art in Trade” The American Magazine of Art, Vol. 21

But how could artists create a national asset if they couldn’t live from the sale of their art? And how indeed could they sell their art to other Americans who couldn’t provide roofs over their heads? It seems that there were no answers until… well, until a proposal was brought to the attention of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt by a painter, George Biddle, in 1933. Fortunately for him, Biddle came from a wealthy family who could afford to buy art. Moreover, he was a friend of the President whose New Deal program was already underway. He wrote,

“…the younger artists of America are conscious as they have never been of the social evolution that our country and civilization are going through, and they would be eager to express those ideals in a permanent art form if they were given the government’s co-operation. They would be contributing to and expressing in living monuments the social ideals that you are struggling to achieve.”

Biddle to Roosevelt from a letter reprinted in An American Artist’s Story

To make a long story short, President Roosevelt liked the idea – especially since a vast mural program could convey the ideals of his Administration – and it became part of his radical but effective New Deal program, which was intended to break the back of the Great Depression.


The project that was fought over politically became known as the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). It called for a six-month plan by government subsidy of artists and ran from December 1933 through June 1934. Painters and others were paid to make art. No fewer than 3,750 were paid $23 per week to execute 15,660 works of art (mostly paintings of various sizes), some of which – about 700 – were murals painted in post offices, schools and other public places. The first six-month experiment of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), financed by funds from the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and directed by the painter-businessman Edward Bruce (1879-1943), was a stunning success in that artists were able to depend upon an income, meager as it was. In fact, the PWAP provided the impetus for further programs, first the Section of Painting and Sculpture, within the Treasury Department, which operated between October 1934 and June 1943. Simultaneously, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), referred to as Federal Project Number One, was ready to roll in 1935 and it lasted through May 1943. It funded the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), also organized by Bruce, between July 1935 and June 1938. The fourth program, the WPA Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), which operated between September 1935 and May 1943, was guided carefully by Holger Cahill (1887-1960). This prolific writer, connoisseur and museum curator, came to the United States as a child from Iceland, part of a destitute immigrant family. I’m sure he knew what the PWAP was all about. A fierce egalitarian, Cahill believed art belonged to all Americans, not just to the rich, and he emphasized community participation in the arts; ideally, the Fine Arts and utilitarian crafts were to be a part of everyday life. Repelled by Art for Art’s Sake elitism and the grandiose traditions of European academies, Cahill preferred a simple, realist and indigenous American art (Regionalism), what Thomas Hart Benton’s flag-waving mentor Thomas Craven was advocating. Nevertheless, while Bruce regulated that the Regionalists’ “American Scene” would be the orthodox subject matter in the PWAP, artists of the decentralized WPA/FAP, administered in the states, could be one of a variety of “stylistic persuasions.”

As Robert Hughes points out, the FAP was “not a relief project but a system of government commissioning.” (Robert HughesAmerican Visions: The Epic History of Art in America) Accordingly, the FAP virtually created jobs for about 5,000 artists. The project was bountiful, for no fewer than 108,000 easel pictures, 11,300 original prints, 2,500 murals and 18,000 sculptures were produced. Schools, libraries and other public facilities were the recipients of these works, some of which were outstanding, others barely mediocre. Painters had to pass a simple test to prove their ability, a requirement for the eligibility of a weekly paycheck. Painters were allowed to choose the subject matter and to work in their own studios. Artists were to deliver finished works every four to eight weeks. The program worked.

Now what are we to say about establishing such an art program in 2010? Shall the government pay painters to make art? Should tax dollars go for those cultural products? Do we need reform for the American art market? Is the subsidy of art a worthy comparison to health care? I’d like to hear from you as you contemplate the validity of an art subsidy program for the President's Administration. Perhaps he still admires President Roosevelt enough to find dollars for art. And perhaps we should consider the true value of art in our lives… Surely there’s a way to stimulate that part of our economy that contributes all it has to our American heritage.