The WPA Federal Art Project in New York - 1939

Front Cover, The WPA Federal Art Project: A Summary of Activities and Accomplishments, New York City

Front Cover, The WPA Federal Art Project: A Summary of Activities and Accomplishments, New York City: Works Progress Administration, 1939. GGA Image ID # 1530ea1b41

How It Began

In 1932, New York, claiming international interest as an art center, was forced to discard the comforting notion that its artists were a race apart. Little similarity could be found to the traditional picture of the artist in his garret Ivory Tower, creating art for art's sake.

Even as he tried to satisfy hunger with the soul-stimulating manna of dry bread, it became increasingly urgent to make some provision for his employment. While public interest in Art continued after 1929, the art market had almost completely disappeared.

During the flourishing years, the country in general and New Yorkers in particular had been introduced to the best in contemporary European art. Although American art resources barely had been tapped, there was a nascent awareness that art had a place in everyday life.

This was further developed by the growing number of exhibitions and art publications, by the creative art and the appreciation courses in schools and colleges, and by re-vitalized museum presentations.

The public's readiness to cooperate with a program giving work relief to artists was apparent when the Gibson Committee was established in December 1932.

Small groups of artists, among the thousands stranded by the depression, were given month-to-month assignments to design and execute murals for non—profitmaking institutions.

Public interest was further reflected when at the cad of 1933 the Civil Works Administration took over and enlarged the program already started.

Its scope was again enlarged when local sponsorship was succeeded in April, 1934, by the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Reverting to the city in August 1935, work relief for artists was established in the Federal Art Project of the New York City Works Progress Administration.

Its present structure was defined when the Federal Art Project became part of Federal Project No. 1 in November 1935, with Holger Cahill as National Director and Audrey McMahon as Regional Director and Assistant to the National Director. In July 1937, Paul Edwards became administrative officer in charge of the Federal Arts Projects in New York City.

The Purpose of The Project

To conserve the talents and skills of artists who, through no fault of their own, found themselves on the relief rolls and without means to continue their work, to encourage young artists of definite ability, to integrate the fine with the practical arts and, more especially, the arts in general with the daily life of the community—these, in brief, are the primary objectives of the WPA federal Art Project.

More than 350 separate projects have been put into operation to carry oat these objectives in the Project's regional divisions throughout the United States.

The chief concern of the "Federal Art Project has been to give employment to needy artists, but it has been able also to create works of art for the public which have a definite social value to the community.

In New York City, the Project's creative divisions produce murals and photo-murals,easel paintings, sculpture, graphic prints, stained glass and photographs for tax-supported public buildings, Libraries, schools, armories, hospitals, municipal and state institutions, courthouses, prisons and other public buildings throughout New York have been recipients of these RFA Federal Art Project works.

Allocations are made on the basis of an indefinite loan, for which the recipient reimburses the Project for other than labor costs.

The divisions of the WPA Federal Art Project serving the Project itself or the public directly are art teaching, the Index of American Design, photography, exhibitions, posters, visual education, scenic designing, Four Arts Design Unit and the Restoration, Installation and Technical Service division.

The largest of these divisions, art teaching, is perhaps most far reaching in its immediate effectiveness. Its ever widening scope, making possible the development of a greater sensitiveness to art among the coming generation, encompasses young people all over the country who will form a genuine audience for American art in the future.

It is of paramount importance to the community that children shall have ample opportunity to indulge and express their creative fancies.

Rather than attempting to make professional artists of the many thousands of young people who daily attend WPA Federal Project classes, art teachers are opening up an enchanting world, too long denied the underprivileged children of the country.

Guidance along new, unexplored paths is given to these 6- to 16-year-olds, who had been culturally, as well as economically, trapped by the circumstances of their lives.

In helping to salvage the present, the WPA Federal Art Project offers a measure of assurance that once-maladjusted and delinquent children and those whom art has aided to change fron incipient enemies of society will become useful citizens, contributing to the general welfare of the country.

Galleries and Art Centers

The New York City WPA Federal Art Project was the first to present, in its own gallery, public exhibitions of representative art works created under the Federal art program.

The initial show in the WPA Federal Art Gallery, then located at 7 East 38th Street, opened in December 1935. It put on view color and black-and-white sketches for mural designs, cartoons and detail panels of murals already allocated or yet to be allocated to the various eligible institutions in New York.

Since this first exhibition, 36 other snows have been presented. The first gallery to be opened in the heart of New York City's shopping and manufacturing district, its exhibitions attracted an audience which hitherto had no opportunity to spend even a brief time in gallery visits.

In addition to those casual passersby who viewed exhibitions during their lunch hour, or, perhaps as an interlude during shopping, the gallery guest bock also registered many from other localities in the United States.

The present gallery, at 225 West 57th Street, provides a more spacious background for Project exhibitions in the very center of New York City's art activity.

So far, 53 Federal Art Galleries and Art Centers have been put into operation in the South and Mid-West, since the pioneer gallery was opened in New York. It is estimated that more than a million people have participated in their activities.

Stimulating community interest in the arts, such centers have provided a meeting ground for the artist and those who see his work, "bringing them into a closer, more understanding relationship.

Until recently, in remote sections of the country where there had "been little or no opportunity to see paintings, sculpture or graphic prints, the public first came to the newly established art galleries and centers merely to be shown pictures.

But through the Project's program of lectures, demonstrations and classes, they have been able to acquire the fundamentals of art appreciation.

What is perhaps even more important, these people, brought together by a community interest in art, have learned its meaning and place in their everyday experiences through the process of creating art themselves.

Classes in painting, sculpture, graphic art and craft work, originally planned for the children of the community who cannot afford private tuition, have had to be augmented by classes for adults in response to their requests.

New York's Community Art Centers, established in Manhattan—Harlem and the upper East Side— in Flushing, Queens, and Brooklyn, make it possible more closely to integrate and coordinate community needs with classes, exhibitions, lectures and other services offered by the centers.

The public which benefits directly from the art teaching division of the WPA Federal Art Project also is ultimately the recipient of the art works produced under WPA Federal Art Project supervision for tax-supported buildings. Gallery exhibitions offer taxpayers the best opportunity to see and discuss the results of the Federal art program.


Among the WPA Federal Art Project's creative divisions, work in mural painting has been of paramount importance, both in discovering new talent and in offering artists a medium of expression which had previously been denied all but recognized painters.

One of the few stained-glass divisions of the WPA Federal Art Project is in operation in New York City. Work on two important allocations, one of then nearing completion, has been under way.

Easel Painting

Paintings in oil, watercolor, tempera, and gouache are produced by artists of the easel painting division in their own studios on assignment fron their supervisors. Subjects include urban and country landscapes, still-life and figure studies, marines, and portraits.

Styles range fron the neo-primitive to abstractions; fron the classical school to definitely social realism. Employing the largest number of creative artists, the easel painting division in New York, like the other regions of the country, has not been able to meet all the requests for works from public institutions.

Initiative in meeting new problems, coupled with an admirable command. of the several media used, characterizes the work of the easel painting division.

Graphic Art

The America scene is reflected in the prints produced ii the graphic art division of the WPA Federal Art Project. An extraordinary versatility is revealed in the work of this division in presenting the kaleidoscopic picture of life today.

Etchings, lithographs, dry points, linoleum and wood blocks, graphic artists create wood engravings and color lithographs. In New York City a graphic art workshop and studio was set up in February 1936, providing necessary equipment for the artists of this division.

Skilled and experienced printers operate the lithograph, etching and woodblock presses. However, many of the artists, who are able to, prefer to do their own printing.


The largest number of WPA Federal Art Project sculptors is employed in New York City. As part of the national program to unite the distinct but related arts of sculpture and architecture, the sculpture division makes most of its assignments on the basis of architectural requirements.

Ranging in size from monumental figures of heroic proportions to the miniature, the works of the sculpture division include friezes, plaques, pediments, panels and low and high-relief decorations, executed in a variety of plastic materials to harmonize with architectural plans for public buildings.

Art Teaching

No phase of the work of the WPA Federal Art Project has «greater social significance than that of art teaching. Countless thousands of children, from 6 to 16 years of age, ordinarily denied all cultural advantages, participate in the free art classes supervised by the art teaching division of the WPA Federal Art Project.

Daily, and in increasing numbers, they come to the classroom studios which have been improvised in or are a regular part of the settlement houses, schools, neighborhood and church clubs, libraries, borough centers, and other community meeting places.

Throughout the country they are recording with youthful enthusiasm, and oftentimes enviable line and color, the wonders of the world. Patient guidance and intelligent suggestions from the art teachers of the Project have opened their eyes, sharpened their senses.

By creating art themselves, these youngsters summon forth a new world; a magical world given meaning and form with paints and brushes, clay, and modelling tools. But what is equally important through self-expression they are acquiring an understanding and appreciation of art.

The Visual Education Section of the Art Teaching Division places the cinema at the command of settlements, schools, and community and club groups, and serves to reinforce the lessons learned in the Project's free art classes.

Index of African Design

Established to make a pictorial record—in black-and—white and in color—of the historical decorative arts in America from the earliest settlement days of the 17th Century through the 19th Century, the Index of American Design has become one of the most important undertakings of the WPA Federal Art Project.

The Index has uncovered hidden and long neglected sources of American design in furniture, costumes, textiles, glass, ceramics, metal work, and other examples of native origin. It has accelerated interest in the decorative arts of America in all their regional, historical, and functional phases.


The photography division of the ÏÏPA Federal Art Project in New York City fulfills a two-fold purpose in its service and creative sections. In the first photographers record the work executed in all divisions of the WPA Federal Art Project for file and documentary requirements.

Besides, Federal Art Project cameramen working on creative assignments originate their own subjects and execrate them according to their own particular purpose.

They have produced photomontage studies and series of architectural, racial, scenic and genre subjects, and have planned, designed, and executed, under Project supervision, photo-murals allocated to libraries, airports and low-cost housing developments.

The Motion Picture Production Unit has produced one motion picture film, "The Technique of Fresco Painting," dramatically demonstrating how fresco mural is prepared and painted.

Its subject, "Evolution of Western Civilization," is the mural then in process of completion in the library of Evander Childs High School. The film has been shown to the public in connection with WPA Federal Art Project exhibitions.

It is now circulating WPA Federal Art Project galleries and centers throughout the country. Groups in hospitals, museums, colleges, and trade unions are among tie varied and specialized audiences to which the motion picture has been presented.


In addition to setting up and presenting exhibitions of Project work in the WPA Federal Art Gallery in New York, the exhibitions division prepares aid circulates exhibitions for the numerous institutions requesting them.

Collections comprising easel paintings, graphic prints, sculpture, Index of American Design drawings, photographs, and posters, and work by the children who attend Project art teaching classes were sent to schools, colleges, libraries, museums, clubs, community centers, hotels, department stores, theatres, trade unions, and hospitals. This division also maintains a frame shop, which designs and produces frames for project paintings, and a matting service for prints and watercolors.


The work of the poster division, in the main, consists of announcing, illustrating, and advertising the many enterprises of WPA Federal Projects and of state, municipal and federal departments and agencies. Attesting to its social value and public influence, the poster division has waged an unrelenting pictorial war on disease, crime, noise and vandalism.

Scenic Designing and Model Making

The Scenic Designing Division executes three-dimensional historic stage set models and includes in its scope functional architectural models and dioramas.

Model Service

The model service division assigns male and female models to WPA Federal Art Project easel painters, sculptors, mural and graphic artists whose work requires special studies of figure, costume, and character subjects. Models are assigned to art teaching classes for adults in the Borough Art Centers and in social agencies throughout New York City.

Four Arts Design Unit

The many art requirements of the WPA Federal Writers, Theatre and Music Projects are coordinated and executed by the art service division.

Providing all the essentials of an art service to the WPA Federal Art Project as well as to other projects, it designs posters, programs, booklets, brochures, catalogues, and special backgrounds for theatre and music productions.

It also plans and executes the illustrations, typographical layout, and make-up of the various publications of the WPA Federal Writers Project. It meets these special needs of the Projects in New York City and extends its services to fulfill the requirements of Projects in regions outside of New York.

Restoration, Installation and Technical Service Division

Paintings in tax supported buildings that have been damaged by exposure, time, neglect, and accident are restored to their original state by specialists and experts attached to this Division. It also prepares the walls for the installation of murals and maintains a staff of workers to install Project murals as well as to pre pare portable murals for frequent changes in location.

In its technical service this Division operates a laboratory to test the oil colors and media used by the artists of the Project. In addition to testing colors and other materials for physical and chemical properties and fastness to light, it also experiments with new materials on the special problems arising from the needs of the mural, sculpture, graphic art divisions and the other sections of the Project requiring its specialized services.


The WPA Federal Art Project, providing employment and some measure of economic security to needy artists in all parts of the country, has been as well an instrument for their aesthetic rehabilitation. Skills have been conserved, new talents have been discovered and given the opportunity to develop, while an art tradition has been salvaged from the past for the future.

The restrictions which made art the special possession of the few, whose patronage fostered it as a luxury enjoyment, have been broken down and removed. Tie public has learned to accept the artist as a useful, producing member of the social family.

The public's new awareness of art, its place in everyday life, is reflected in the work produced by the painters, sculptors, muralists, and graphic artists of the WPA Federal Art Project who have brought into salience the multifarious aspects of the American scene.

A richer significance has been given to the lives of those who have come closer to art through the works produced and presented by the WPA Federal Art Project and to those who have experienced the stimulation of creating it themselves.

In fulfilling a two-fold purpose, the WPA Federal Art Project has established a firm foundation for the future of art in this country while it has preserved for safe keeping, beyond the assault of time and disuse, our heritage from the past.

For the first time in history, government patronage in art has been initiated without the binding red tape which makes some "official art" a useless, ineffective expression.

Government patronage of the WPA Federal Art Project enables the artists of the country to continue the practice of their art and the development of their skill.

It has given impetus to a movement which assures the future of art in America and the preservation of all that it contributed to our past.

To the Public

Although the primary objective of the Federal Art Project of the U. S. Works Progress Administration is the employment of artists from the relief rolls, the project has been able to create works of art for the public which have a definite social value to the community.

Such works are available for allocation to tax-supported institutions throughout the City and State on the basis of an indefinite loan; the institution requesting the allocation reimbursing only for non-labor costs in the creation of the work of art.

Public schools, hospitals, libraries, armories, post offices, court houses and other tax-supported public institutions are eligible for allocations. Etchings, lithographs, oil and watercolor paintings, portraits, sculpture, and mural decorations are executed by WPA Federal Art Project artists.

The WPA Federal Art Project in New York City consists of the following divisions:

  • Art Teaching
  • Central Allocations
  • Easel Paintings
  • Exhibitions
  • Four Arts Design Unit
  • Graphic Art
  • Index of American Design
  • Information and Records Models Service
  • Murals
  • Photography
  • Posters
  • Sculpture
  • Stained Glass
  • Restoration, Installation, and Technical Service
  • Visual Education
  • Model Making
  • Scenic Design


Inquiries about exhibitions and requests for information about the Federal Art Project outside of the New York aid New Jersey area should be directed to Mr. Holger Cahill, National Director, Federal Art Project, forks Progress Administration, 1734 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D. C.



Works Progress Administration, The WPA Federal Art Project: A Summary of Activities and Accomplishments, New York City, 1939.

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