An Auspicious Beginning
In the 1930s, the Federal Government created the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency. And it was called the Works Progress Administration (renamed the Work Project Administration (WPA) in 1939). Headed by Harry Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. At its peak in 1938, it provided paid jobs for three million unemployed men and women, as well as youth in a separate division, the National Youth Administration. Projects under its domain included the construction of public buildings, regional airports and roads. Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed. The WPA’s initial appropriation in 1935 was $4.9 billion, and in total spent $13.4 billion.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the WPA with an executive order on May 6, 1935. It was part of his New Deal plan to lift the country out of the Great Depression by reforming the financial system and restoring the economy to pre-Depression levels. The unemployment rate in 1935 was at a staggering 20 percent. The WPA was designed to provide relief for the unemployed by providing jobs and income for millions of Americans. At its height in late 1938, more than 3.3 million Americans worked for the WPA.
The WPA – which in 1939 was renamed the Work Projects Administration – employed mostly unskilled men to carry out public works infrastructure projects. They built more than 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees.
The Federal Art Project
But there was a smaller, more famous project. The Federal Project Number One. For this project, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. It commissioned hundreds of artists to create thousands of poster designs. This included posters for public exhibits, community activities, theatrical productions, health, safety and educational programs, nature and travel.
Roosevelt intended Federal One (as it was known) to put artists back to work while entertaining and inspiring the larger population by creating a hopeful view of life amidst the economic turmoil. Artists created motivational posters and painted murals of “American scenes” in public buildings. Sculptors created monuments, and actors and musicians were paid to perform.
At its peak, The Federal Art Project employed more than 5,300 artists. Artists from the Art Teaching Division were employed in settlement houses and community centers to give classes to an estimated 50,000 children and adults. They set up over 100 art centers around the country that served an estimated eight million individuals. The WPA arts programs led to the later creation of the National Foundation of the Arts.
Notable WPA Artists
At its height, Federal One employed 5,300 visual artists and related professionals. Some of them later became world-renowned. Before his art could earn him income, American painter Jackson Pollock worked for the WPA’s Federal Arts Project, a component of Federal One. He worked as a mural assistant and later an easel painter between 1938 and 1942. After World War II, Pollock became a major figure in the abstract expressionism movement. In addition to Pollock, the WPA employed a number of other abstract and experimental artists that would go on to form the New York School, an avant-garde art movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That group included renowned artists such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner.
Included in these Federal Art Project designs were posters for our National Parks. These posters encouraged Americans to travel and explore our national treasures. By the end of the WPA era, only 26 National Parks had been established and only 14 national park posters had been created.
Criticism of the WPA
Some politicians criticized the WPA for its inefficiencies. WPA construction projects sometimes ran three to four times the cost of private work. Some of this was intentional. The WPA avoided cost-saving technologies and machinery in order to hire more workers. Unions protested the WPA for its refusal to pay wages as high as those in the private sector. WPA arts programs drew frequent criticism from Congress and the lay public. “Boondoggling” entered the American lexicon as a term to describe these and other government projects that critics deemed wasteful or pointless.
Despite these attacks, the WPA is celebrated today for the employment it offered to millions during the darkest days of the Great Depression, and for its lasting legacy of smartly designed, well-built schools, dams, roads, bridges and other buildings and structures – many of which are still in use today.
Continuing the Work of the WPA
As a photographer, artist and craftsman, I am passionate about preserving the nostalgic style of the WPA-era. I’m picking up where the masters from that time left off, building on what they began to create a whole new body of National Park poster art for our generation. Every Limited Edition poster, Artist Proof and postcard I produce is printed in the USA on “Conservation” a 100% recycled, domestically produced stock with soy-based inks. And they are printed by one of the greenest printers in America, right here in Colorado.
These posters are not endorsed or sponsored by the National Park Service or the Department of the Interior. They are intended to be reminiscent of the WPA style of posters from the 1930s and 1940s. National Park Posters is not associated in any way with the National Park Service or the Department of the Interior.
Robert B. Decker Limited Edition National Park Posters www.National-Park-Posters.com