The WPA's Federal Art Project put money in the pockets
of the unemployed, brought the avant-garde into
small-town America, and started an aesthetic revolution
BY CAROL STRICKLAND
(Reproduced by permission from the April-May 1997 issue of Civilization magazine)
Robert Muchley, Philadelphia
O IT WASN'T QUITE HOWARD Carter's first glimpse of King Tut's tomb, but for scholars of Depression-era art, the find ranks with some of the greatest discoveries of all time.
Thirty-one years ago, art historian Francis V. O'Connor climbed a spiral staircase to a remote attic above the rotunda of the Library of Congress. He unlocked a heavy door to reveal a cobwebbed, circular room. This was mission control, home of the hardware that sent electric currents to the Jefferson Building's farthest stone ledges to zap pigeons from their roosts.
In the room was an even more electrifying sight: a wooden crate holding nearly 1,000 posters from the Federal Art Project. Sent to the Library for storage during World War II, the posters remained in mint condition, though they hadn't been examined for years. Now part of the Library's Prints and Photographs collection, they demonstrate, in the words of one scholar, how the government "unwittingly launched a movement."
The FAP was a branch of the Works Progress Administration, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's massive work-relief effort. In its peak years, 1936 to 1938, the FAP employed 5,000 artists across the country, at a salary of $95 a month. They created murals, sculptures and paintings, taught community art classes to millions, and produced 2 million posters from 35,000 designs at a cost of about a dime each.
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