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Home / Exhibits / A New Deal: Artists of the WPA from the CMA Collection (November 22, 2023- March 3, 2024)

A New Deal: Artists of the WPA from the CMA Collection (November 22, 2023- March 3, 2024)


The Great Depression spanned the years 1929 to 1939, and during this bleak time, artists rose up against their own financial strains to create art with the hopes of boosting morale throughout the nation. A New Deal: Artists of the WPA from the CMA Collection highlights the remarkable achievements and perseverance of the country made visible by artists during one of the most challenging periods in American history. 


Against the backdrop of severe economic strife caused by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put roughly 8.5 million Americans, including more than 173,000 men and women in Ohio, to work building schools, hospitals, roads and more. Within the WPA was The Federal Art Project (FAP) which provided employment for out-of-work artists to create art for municipal buildings and public spaces. This project was intended to put artists back to work while entertaining and inspiring the larger population. Artists were offered opportunities to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters and photographs as a means to forge forward. 


Because so many artists were called on to offer their services to the American morale, their art offers a snapshot of what life was like, and how artists grappled with their difficult circumstances. While times were bleak, WPA art often hailed the dignity of hard work, the beauty of the American landscape, and the richness of its resources to show that America had the potential to move forward. While a few works alluded to the hardships of the Great Depression, the overall spirit in WPA art was one of optimism, frequently combined with patriotism and nostalgia for a simpler, happier time. Throughout hundreds of public buildings, artists depicted Regionalism, or idealistic images of rural America, communal work, social gatherings, folk traditions, and entertainment, memorializing routine activities for the average American citizen. 


Though artists shared the common goals of capturing life in all its variety and promoting national pride, they had different approaches, and many modified their typical subject matter to fit whatever project they were assigned. Grant Wood, for example, used his commission to embrace nostalgic and positive values and chose to focus on the past in order to distract from the hardships many were facing. Louis Bouché was commissioned by the WPA to create a mural for the Kennedy Department of Justice, which depicted the Department’s positive influence on American society. Others focused instead on the grim reality of what they saw around them and communicated a need for change, such as Philip Evergood, whose politically-driven art was stimulated by an experience he had during the Depression where he came across poverty on the streets of New York City. Other artists represented hope, and what America could be in the future, such as James Swann, who depicted how art has the potential to revive society. Another artist, Reginald Marsh, used his commission to highlight the importance of workers to boost national pride, which was much needed at the time. 


While artists were offered opportunities through the WPA, they were far from immune to the distress caused by the Depression, and many still struggled to make a living. Will Barnet detailed a bleak scene he came across, saying: 

“It was like a war going on. There were bread lines and men lined around three, four, five, six blocks waiting to get a bowl of soup. It was an extraordinary situation. And one felt this terrible dark cloud over the whole city.” 


Moses Soyer also described the hardships artists experienced, saying

“Depression–who can describe the hopelessness that its victims knew? Perhaps no one better than the artist taking his work to show the galleries. They were at a standstill. The misery of the artist was acute.” 


A New Deal: Artists of the WPA from the CMA Collection highlights artists who worked for the WPA, and in doing so, fostered resilience for a struggling nation. You will learn about the projects artists worked on, the subjects they were interested in, and how their own lives were affected by the Depression. Each of these artists helped to foster the nation’s spirit and prove that even in the darkest of times, art serves as a uniting force to collectively lead people into a brighter future.


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