The Works Progress Administration was an anomaly in American cultural history. It was formed in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt with the intent of providing jobs for people who had been left unemployed by the Great Depression. But it didn't just give work to skilled laborers and industrial workers. It also created paid jobs for writers and artists.
"The WPA was really interesting as a social experiment," says Louise Lincoln, curator of the DePaul Art Museum, whose current exhibit, "Ink, Paper, Politics," shows off 55 WPA-era prints recently donated by Belverd Needles Jr. and Marian Powers Needles, accounting professors (he at DePaul, she at Northwestern) who have been collecting for 40 years. "It was hugely controversial at the time, similar to Obamacare now. It raised questions about the government's responsibility to its citizens and about how we should be spending precious tax dollars."
Before the 1930s, Lincoln says, many Americans associated art with Europe and Europeans. The WPA printmakers, though, chose to show American life: people at work, scenes of crowded city streets and subways. "It was socially conscious material," Lincoln says. "FDR wanted to create American art and an American look that would resonate for ordinary people."
Artists had to apply for WPA positions. They were paid between $23 and $35 a month to produce a set amount of work every week. "There were a lot of women participants," says Lincoln, "and it was very overtly welcoming to African-Americans." Because printmaking required specialized equipment, the artists often worked together in shared studio centers, and there was a great pooling of ideas and technical know-how, particularly with silk screen and lithography, which had previously been more common as industrial processes than ways of making art.
Perhaps because there was so much collaboration—or because the artists wanted to keep their patron, the WPA, happy—most of the prints remained representational and accessible, as Lincoln puts it, "very focused on the present and engagement with the human experience." Some were political, like Ernest Fiene's portrait of a ragged black boy at the foot of the Lincoln statue in New York's Union Square. Some, like Edward Arthur Wilson's Untitled (Sanding the Propeller), extol the nobility of the worker, while others, like Eleanor Coen's Untitled (Couple With Baby), in which a strong-looking woman stands in the foreground glaring contemptuously back at her husband, show the toll the Depression had taken on everyone.
The WPA officially disbanded in 1942, although artists continued to work in that style through World War II. But after the war, notions of art changed. "The project developed a national identity that pulls away from the personal," Lincoln says. "After the war, artists reacted against it with abstract expressionism. . . . It was a natural pendulum swing, I think, a reaction to the ways the WPA didn't speak to individual artists."
WPA prints are rare now; only 50 of each were produced. Lincoln feels some nostalgia for the period. "To think of artists as essential was extraordinary," she says. "We're far distant from that now."