Art. Culture. Life.

Commemorating Labor Day | The WPA Federal Art Project

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Let’s take a short history lesson, one of which is so relevant to today’s times. (And if you don’t think you have the time to read the whole article, skip to the last paragraph for some pretty powerful statistics!)

The WPA Federal Art Project: Art of the People, by the people, for the people.

WPA Federal Art Project - Commemorating Labor Day - posterThe Federal Art Project was a fascinating, influential, and often controversial part of the tumultuous 1930s. Envisioned and led by men such as George Biddle, Edward Bruce and Holger Cahill, the Federal Art Project (and the related U.S. Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture) were created with a two-pronged purpose:

1) support unemployed artists out of concern that a generation of American art
    might otherwise disappear

2) install accessible artwork in public places in rural communities around the
    country, and thereby make it part of everyday life of the average citizen.

WPA Federal Art Project - Commemorating Labor Day - poster

Under Edward Bruce, the mission of the Treasury Section was to advocate for artwork to be included in the WPA public buildings projects, such as city halls and post offices. He was an early champion of a 1 percent allocation of the building costs for art.


WPA Federal Art Project - Commemorating Labor Day - posterFollowing the theory that the commissioned art must be accessible to and understood by the communities who received it, the Section proceeded with two strategies. First, a panel of national judges awarded commissions through an anonymous competition. Once an artist had been selected for a particular commission, he or she was required to become familiar with the community – its cultural, agricultural and industrial life. The artist often moved to the area, where all stages of the work were reviewed and approved by a local panel.

WPA Federal Art Project - Commemorating Labor Day - poster


This multilayered, democratic selection process led to the Social Realism of the era; and incidentally is why the art in public buildings across the country has similar characteristics. In one region, the subjects may be cotton picking and plowing with mule teams, and in others wheat, corn and potato harvests, paddle boats, butter churning, or mining scenes. In the Northwest, of course, it was agriculture and timber.

WPA Federal Art Project - Commemorating Labor Day - poster


In the relatively short eight years of its existence, the fine arts effort of the WPA Federal Art Project was responsible for about 5,000 artists producing more than 23,000 watercolors and drawings, 18,000 pieces of sculpture, over 100,000 paintings, and more than 2,500 murals around the country.