THE W.P.A. ARTISTS PROJECT

by Jeanette Hendler

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, Norman Barr and Gertrude Shibley are in museum collections, exhibitions and are in many private collections, but are not as yet nationally known.

AARON BERKMAN, "Orchard St.", 9 3/4 x 13 3/4", CA. 1930's, o/b, signed

W.P.A. was the abbreviation for the WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION, a government funded arts program which had an artists division. The WPA was originally known as the P.W.A.P. and it existed in the mid 1930's to the mid 1940's. The artists who participated in the WPA ranged from figurative and academic, all the way to abstraction and surrealism, in addition to almost every other school of painting, sculpture and the graphic arts including prints and posters. The WPA was an idea that George Biddle presented to his close friend and classmate, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Biddle was a talented painter who felt the plight of the unfortunate and poor arts community during the Depression. He prevailed upon F.D.R. to create a program for this group of creative people. The W.P.A. program and FEDERAL PROJECT NO. 1, as it was called, included many projects, among which were the Art, Music, Theater and Writers Projects. Government funding of the arts community continued until the mid 1940's, when the WPA was disbanded.

The Artists Project was organized across the United States. The New York WPA had the largest membership of all the projects in the United States. Over 5,000 artists throughout the nation were involved. New York accounted for about one-half of the national figure. An eligibility process was organized, whereby the artists interested in participating on the WPA would apply to a panel of their peers, They first had to prove they were in financial need unless they were in a supervisory job. There, the artists would submit their work with any publicity, resume or exhibition records that they had. On the basis of the artists training experience and ability, the artists then received assignments. The pay scale ranged from $23.00 a week to approximately $35.00 a week. The artists waited on line each week to receive their checks and this waiting line very often became an opportunity for the artists to socialize with and meet one another.

JULES HALFANT, oil on linen panel, 22" x 28", 1937, signed "Harlem Shop"

In New York, the heads of the committees to determine the artists eligibility were Burgoyne Diller for murals, Girolamo Piccoli for sculpture, Ernest Limbach and Gustave Von Groschwitz for graphics and Alexander Stavenitz for teachers. There were assistant artists who aided the muralists or architectural sculptors. There were also models and framemakers. The project also employed art restorers and publicists for the artists. In addition, there were the photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn who developed their photography skills on the WPA project.

Artists could apply for and be transferred from one division to another, after approval. The artists were free to choose their own subject matter in every area, except the directly commissioned works such as the murals. The artists division of the WPA had many subdivisions. One was called the Teaching Project. Over two million students attended WPA art classes in community centers and neighborhood houses. Hundreds of art exhibitions were held as a result of this, some in Federal Art Galleries. The Mural Project produced many thousands of murals. They were located in schools, libraries, hospitals, public buildings, airports and other locations. The Sculpture Project also placed large amounts of works. Many specific sculptures were also commissioned. The largest volume of work was done by the Easel, Poster and Printmaking Projects. Some of this work was also placed in public places. However, the majority of the paintings, prints and posters were turned into the WPA, as the rules required and they were then stored by the WPA. At the conclusion of the WPA. in the mid 1940's, thousands of artworks were in the WPA projects storage rooms and much of the work was lost or sold off by the pound. Despite the unfortunate way the WPA and the government dealt with the artists work at the conclusion of the project, many positive results took place. The artists for the most part were able to sustain themselves through difficult times. Many artists gained experience, their careers were helped and life-time friendships began during the WPA. The general public became exposed to the works of art through the exhibitions, the schools of art and the public institutions that displayed the murals, sculpture and other works. Approximately twenty-five years after the WPA ended, the United States Government established the National Endowment for the Arts. The Government authorized one hundred million dollars to be spent yearly on the arts in the United States. In as much as the WPA's total budget for the eight years of its existence was only thirty-five million dollars, there has always been an open door for considerable discussion due to the disparity of the figures. A lot is learned about the 1930's and 1940's when we study the art produced at the time of the WPA. We learn from and see where all the future art movements such as surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art, minimilism and graffiti art emerged.

MAX ARTHUR COHN, "Ferry Boat" (Staten Island), 1936, o/c, signed

©1996 Jeanette Hendler

Jeanette Hendler has been an Art Collector for over twenty five years, Private Dealer, and Arts consultant and is a member of the American Appraisers Association. Jeanette resides and conducts business in New York City and can be reached at 212-860-2555. She has an extensive inventory in all mediums of WPA, Modernism, Regionalsim and Realism Art.

©The Fine Arts Trader 2009