Art Becomes Public Works
by Florence Loeb Kellogg, An Article in the Survey Graphic (June, 1934)
WHEN the Civil Works Administration (CWA) admitted artists suffering from the depression to a place in its program, last December, the federal government suddenly found itself fostering a burst of creativeness in the fine arts that is unique in the history of democracies. The art lovers responsible for the Public Works of Art Project, most notably its guiding spirit, Edward Bruce, attorney and artist of Washington, had no intention of wasting this opportunity by setting artists and craftsmen at busy-work. Paid for out of public money, their work would belong to the public, to be placed in any building or park supported by federal, state or municipal taxes. Public buildings and parks could benefit by good art; consequently the best of the artists eligible for this aid must be chosen.
It was the interpretation of this dual purpose, to benefit both artists and the public, which produced bitterness, particularly in a few centers where many artists congregate or there is a movement for “proletarian art.” Twenty-five hundred were to be employed. (The Art Digest estimates that we have between twenty and fifty thousand people who consider themselves artists.) The regional committees, to whom the responsibility for projects and employment of artists was turned over, carried out their functions according to their best lights. Most of the artists in the country displayed pride in sharing in the project and good-will towards it even if for one reason or another they were excluded. Many, though ineligible, contributed pieces of work or gave their services without pay in order to have part in the enterprise.
The decentralization of the project made it a success and holds promise of further good results. The administrative office in Washington, under the Treasury (in whose jurisdiction public buildings come), with Mr. Bruce as secretary of the advisory committee and Forbes Watson, formerly editor of The Arts, as head of the technical staff, gave over the regional responsibility to sixteen committees and their subdivisions. Experts served without remuneration on these committees, museum directors, art teachers and art lovers, some six hundred throughout the country, and worked tirelessly to make the movement of consequence. Leaders, artists and the public of each section came to know one another. Even in some of our larger cities little money had hitherto been spent on decorating public buildings, and requests for artists’ services poured in. Artists, who were paid craftsmen’s wages of from $23.50 to $42.50 a week and supplied their own materials when these were inexpensive, were aided in some community projects where the cost of materials was high, by public subscription. At the close of the project a number of regional divisions held local exhibitions.
The public now owns, at a cost of less than a million and a half dollars, about fifteen thousand new works of art. These range from prints, which can be issued in some quantity, to what seems to be the most ambitious of the undertakings, the decoration of the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, in which forty-four artists and their assistants were engaged. Actually 3671 men and women were employed, for varying periods of time, in the less than five months’ duration of the Public Works of Art Project. Except where sketches for special pieces of work had to be passed on in advance, the artists worked with complete freedom. The general assignment was the American scene.
A cross-section of the work done, as assembled for the past month at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, proved stimulating not only for the excellence of the work of many unknown or little known artists but for the many-sided picture it incidentally gave of a vast country. Some sculpture was shown but the exhibits were of necessity mainly easel paintings. In one small gallery were grouped art objects made by Indian artists—pottery, Navajo rugs, a religious wood carving, mural decorations; in another, things made for children—paintings, tiles, ceramic figures, marionettes.
This representative showing and a file of books containing hundreds of photographs gave an idea of the scope of the project. A record of some current activities has been made: CCC and CWA scenes, city slums and the subsistence homestead movement, an interpretation of New Deal economics, a series of Boulder Dam paintings. There are portraits and busts of well-known American figures, as, for instance, Steinmetz, Booker T. Washington, Paul Revere, Stephen Foster, Judge Payne, even Paul Bunyan; and scenes of earlier days, of historical events and of places of national interest. Other useful commissions have been executed, such as glazed clay figures for a school for the blind, paintings of local trees in their environment for a children’s room in a library, bas reliefs of animals and decorative maps for elementary schools. Textiles, ceramics, carved furniture, wrought-iron weather vanes have come under the project.
Schools, zoological gardens, libraries and hospitals, particularly for their children’s departments, municipal auditoriums, state universities and normal schools, city halls, county courthouses, post-offices, customhouses, museums, Ellis Island, the Naval and Military Academies,—institutions all over the country had seized this opportunity to decorate walls or add sculptural details. This decoration varies in importance. Much of it is merely pleasant, some is more ambitious. Three panels of farm life painted by a group of artists for Iowa State College, two panels on Negro life painted by a Negro artist for a Negro high school, and decorations for the teachers’ colleges and state historical society in Oklahoma, by Indians, are of special interest.
What of the benefit to the artist in times of depression? The letters received by the administrative office show once more how little the artist measures his career by the money he makes. Though he chooses dire need no more than an other man, he asks mainly for a chance to do his work. Letters refer gratefully to the actual relief the weeks of employment offered (typical is: “I had not been on the commissary but I have been almost there many times”), but all of them dwell on another benefit of this nation-wide encouragement of art. They speak of the restoration of morale, of renewed self-confidence, of the sense of being at last acknowledged as an important member of the social family, with a place in the economic system.
“Never in my career,” to quote from one letter, “have I experienced such a sense of lift as I feel now in my work for the government. No newspaper criticism, however kind, no exhibition of my work, no scholarship, no patronage, has fired me as does this project.”
Edward Bruce, who is no enthusiast for our addiction to the gold-leaf embellishment of public buildings, points out that the project “has created for this country a new and finer definition of public works.” If this country-wide use of the artist’s work in public places should continue, we shall yet have art for the people, where the people can see it. Artists will develop in stature to meet the need.
Source: Kellogg, Florence Loeb , Survey Graphic , Vol. 23, No. 6, p. 279 (June, 1934), http://newdeal.feri.org/survey/34279.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (March 8, 2014).
Photo Source: Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (March 8, 2014).