New Deal Cultural Programs:

Experiments in Cultural Democracy

by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard

© Copyright Adams & Goldbard 1986, 1995



Introduction: Federal Cultural Programs of the 1930's

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal cultural programs marked the U.S. government's first big, direct investment in cultural development. In many ways, they present a mirror image of today's federal policy picture: their goals were clearly stated and democratic; they supported activities not already subsidized by private sector patrons, rather than following private patrons' leads; and they emphasized the interrelatedness of culture with all aspects of life, not the separateness of a rarefied art world.

The New Deal programs were inspired by many sources. For some, the New Deal offered a chance to act on the exciting ideas of Mexican muralists in their struggle to create a new public art not constrained by the conventions of the European art world. For others, inspiration came from the practical work that had been done in the settlement houses and rural extension services; from new progressive educational theories; from the new definitions of art that had come out of the Russian Revolution; from the Group Theater and other experiments in politically-conscious, collaborative art; and from dozens of other influences.

The main federal cultural programs of the '30s were based on concern for a labor market: professional artists and others engaged in cultural work. The skyrocketing popularity of media like the phonograph, radio and movies had recently supplanted many thousands of live performers: some 30,000 musicians had been displaced by new mechanical modes of music reproduction; the government estimated that well over 30,000 theater workers were unemployed by the mid-'30s. With over 70 million movie tickets being sold every week, live theaters were closing all over the United States. The Loew's theater chain boasted 36 houses offering 40-50 weeks of live entertainment each year before 1930; by 1934, Loew's had only three such houses operating. These new electronic media resulted in "technological unemployment" for workers in the live media. {1}

The concern for professional artists' employment dovetailed with the federal programs of the 1930s. Chronic unemployment was the central and most persistent feature of the Depression: by 1932, estimates of the total number unemployed ranged from 8 to 17 million workers -- this, at a time when the total U.S. population was just 125 million. A variety of federal efforts were taken to address unemployment in cultural fields.

Early New Deal Programs: PWAP and FERA

George Biddle is credited with first suggesting a federal arts program to FDR. A classmate of Roosevelt's at Groton, Biddle had studied painting with famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and was inspired by the Mexican mural movement of the '20s to a vision of a socially-conscious public art movement in the U.S. He wrote to Roosevelt in 1933, suggesting that he and a team of muralists embellish the new Justice Department building in Washington, D.C.

The notion of public artwork wasn't new to FDR: During Roosevelt's governorship of New York, state relief director Harry Hopkins had allocated funds to New York City's College Art Association to employ around 100 artists in settlement houses. Roosevelt turned Biddle's suggestion over to the Treasury Department, responsible for construction of federal buildings. There, a lawyer-turned-painter on the staff -- Edward Bruce -- was asked for advice. Biddle's project was approved, and Bruce was put in charge of organizational groundwork. He went on to develop a much larger program: the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP).

PWAP was part of the Civil Works Administration (CWA), an experimental program in federal work relief, providing the unemployed with public service jobs during the bitter winter of 1933-34. PWAP employed artists to create works to embellish public buildings -- including one painting for each member of Congress as well as for public schools, orphanages, libraries, museums and practically every other type of public building. PWAP exhibitions in many cities were well-attended: 33,000 people showed up in a single day for an opening in Los Angeles. PWAP ended in April, 1934, along with the rest of the CWA.

Another short-lived, early New Deal program was FERA. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, established in 1933, made federal grants to bolster efforts of state and local governments. Some units of artists receiving support from state and local governments also received funds from FERA; these included some PWAP artists whose work was continued under FERA after PWAP's demise. Some 450 theater workers, for example, formed small performing units that played spot bookings in several major cities from 193335; some continued on even longer, under the aegis of later New Deal programs.

The Treasury Section of Fine Arts

In the fall of 1934, building on his success with PWAP, Edward Bruce was named to head up the new Department of the Treasury Section of Painting & Sculpture, later known as the Section of Fine Arts. The Treasury Section was responsible for fitting out federal buildings with artwork. Funds for artwork were allocated on a case-by-base basis to selected facilities, except for a brief period in 1939, when the U.S. had a short-lived "percent-for-art" provision. This arrangement sets aside 1% of overall construction costs for the purchase or commissioning of artwork; various states and municipal governments have introduced such provisions since the 1960's, though "percent-for-art" has not been reenacted since the '30s at the federal level.

Many Treasury Section artists were chosen by competition: 190 competitions were held; entries included more than 40,000 sketches by some 15,000 artists. Eventually, the Treasury awarded 1,371 commissions.

In the spring of 1935, the Treasury Section introduced another program: the Treasury Relief Art Program (TRAP). TRAP was established with a $530,000 grant to the Treasury from the Works Progress Administration (the WPA, discussed in the next section). Bruce felt he could overlook the WPA's requirement that 90% of the artists employed with its funds be drawn from the relief rolls, insisting, "There are not enough artists on relief to do our job and maintain the quality for which we stand." This reverence for the elusive notion of "quality" opened the Treasury Section to the heaviest criticism of all New Deal programs from what was then a highly organized and politically conscious community of artists. The ensuing controversies anticipate those which have plagued public cultural agencies established since the 1960s.

When the WPA enforced its requirement to draw artists mainly from the relief rolls, Bruce slowed TRAP hiring, holding the Program's payroll to 289. Protests by artists' unions throughout 1936 succeeded in forcing TRAP's payroll up to its highest level of 356; but never did TRAP attain its authorized level of 450 artists.

Perhaps best-known of all the Treasury Section's projects was the placement of murals in at least one post office in each state. A thousand artists submitted nearly 1,500 designs. The Section's stated wish was that these murals reflect the unique regional attributes of each selected site. But in practice this boiled down to a crude formula: some artists were selected for a mural in one region on the basis of designs submitted with another region in mind. They were then required to change, say, a cactus into a sycamore, or lumberjacks into cowboys to adapt to "local culture." Such were the contradictions of attempting to mandate regionalism from a program centralized in Washington, DC.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The largest and most important of the New Deal cultural programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a massive employment relief program launched in the spring of 1935 -- the beginning of FDR's "Second New Deal," as his second term came to be known. In his Annual Message to Congress on January 4 of that year, Roosevelt spoke critically of the failure of his administration's first-term efforts:

We find our population suffering from the old inequalities, little changed by our past sporadic remedies. In spite of our effort and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the overprivileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged....We have...a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear the conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power. {2}

Though the New Deal failed to accomplish the fundamental structural changes FDR's words suggest, his administration entered its second phase in 1935 with a renewed commitment to long-range and sweeping reform of American institutions, emphasizing social justice.

Persistent unemployment was a continuing concern, and Roosevelt felt that simply doling out relief payments would mean "spiritual and moral disintegration destructive to the national fibre." {3} On May 6, 1935, the Works Progress Administration was established under the direction of long-time FDR aide Harry Hopkins. The WPA philosophy was to put the unemployed back to work in jobs which would serve the public good and conserve the skills and the self-esteem of workers throughout the U.S.

The Birth of "Federal One"

Work began immediately on the WPA's Federal Project Number One. Known as "Federal One," the project comprised five major divisions: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project and the Historical Records Survey. Each was headed by a national director. Just one year after the five national directors first met in Washington, some 40,000 WPA artists and other cultural workers were employed in projects throughout the United States.

Federal One was unique among all U.S. government efforts, before or since, in attempting to articulate and accomplish broad public cultural goals. The designers of the WPA rejected the idea of setting up a program of subsidy for existing arts organizations. Instead of providing direct federal grants to these institutions, WPA leaders sought to break new ground with federal cultural support. As Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan said of her division, "We all believed that theater was more than a private enterprise, that it was also a public interest which, properly fostered, might come to be a social and educative force." {4}

Committed to developing work which would serve genuinely public goals, each component division of Federal One became an innovative producer of cultural programs. Federal One projects involved a far greater degree of national direction than public arts administrators of the post-1960s era have considered appropriate. Ironically, though, this strong central direction succeeded in fostering more regional differentiation than have the superficially more flexible public arts programs of our day.

The apparent contradiction between the WPA cultural programs' centralized direction and their exceptional ability to support truly diverse regional work is resolved in part by a closer look at their basic premises. WPA projects took place all over the country, wherever unemployed artists could be found. The cultural impact of this simple fact was far-reaching, summed up by Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project, in a 1939 speech:

...the Project has discovered that such a simple matter as finding employment for the artist in his [sic] hometown has been of the greatest importance. It has, for one thing, helped to stem the cultural erosion which in the past two decades has drawn most of America's art talent to a few large cities. It has brought the artist closer to the interests of a public which needs him, and which is now learning to understand him. And it has made the artist more responsive to the inspiration of the country, and through this the artist is bringing every aspect of American life into the currency of art. {5}

Federal One's Component Projects

The component projects of Federal One went about their work of defining national directions in a variety of ways, as a summary of each project's main activities indicates:

Federal One in Retrospect

It is easy to find fault with Federal One. Thanks to archivists who've retrieved WPA documents from warehouses and garbage dumps, and to Federal One veterans who've produced memoirs and analyses, the projects are extensively documented. There are plenty of anecdotes illustrating the insensitivity of bureaucrats, the clumsiness of politicians' interventions, the attacks of censors and the perils of centralized control. Federal One didn't effect a complete transformation of the cultural landscape; when it was over, cultural production and distribution returned to something very much like the patterns they had taken earlier. It has been argued that the projects served as pacifiers, containing a potentially radical and threatening artists' movement by converting it to a form of government service.

But Federal One cannot be written off as hopelessly flawed. It might be argued that for the narratives of former slaves alone -- for first-person accounts of this pivotal experience in the history of the U.S. -- Federal One was worth it. The FTP served as a laboratory for theatrical forms, some of which still seem fresh and new today. Federal One created opportunities for artists who would have had the greatest difficulties sustaining their work otherwise; and for thousands of people who might never have been able to paint or write or attend live theater themselves.

Though these Federal One projects were mandated nationally, they were conceived with local cultural situations in mind. The regional and oral history collections compiled by the Federal Writers Project, the music and art projects' composers and design indexes -- these and many WPA initiatives documented a past that the private sector had neither the interest nor the resources to preserve -- neither in the '30s nor today.

Special emphasis was placed on preserving and promoting minority cultural forms. So, for example, black theater companies were established in Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Raleigh, San Francisco and Seattle -- all places where economic and social conditions had made it impossible for black theater to exist outside of the fast-disappearing vaudeville stage. Similarly, foreign language companies performed works in French, German, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish; though eager audiences existed for these productions, mounting them for profit had become impossible.

In short, the New Deal cultural projects took responsibility for our cultural commonwealth. They took on the task of recording history -- including many parts otherwise deemed too painful or embarrassing to mention. More than that, they strove to promote cultural life where private action had failed or even done it positive harm.

Within the large, centrally-directed frameworks of Federal One projects, considerable allowance was made for regional differences. The Oklahoma Federal Theatre was a case in point. Oklahoma had few theater professionals, so they had to be used wisely and fully by state directors. The Oklahoma theater project established a service bureau which "ultimately furnished plays, radio scripts, or dramatic source material to over 200 dramatic clubs in educational institutions. The playwright's group expanded to include 66 young writers." The Oklahoma theater carried out extensive historical research throughout the state, using radio to contact people who might provide historical information. It also ran a theater for the blind; ten recreation centers serving both black and white communities; and the Vagabond Puppeteers, which toured Civilian Conservation Corps camps. {7}

The WPA cultural projects also enabled a great deal of experimentation in the form and content of artwork. Designed in consultation with artists' unions, commercial producers and other arts community leaders, Federal One projects made possible work that was acknowledged as important but impossible to undertake in existing private settings. In many cases, this placed the federal government in the role of taking risks for private entrepreneurs no longer willing or able to gamble on new material. The Federal Theatre Project, for example, set up a "try-out" theater in New York City to assess the potential of new material for commercial production: its first production, Woman of Destiny, was subsequently sold to the movies for $25,000; the second, Backwash, was sold to a Broadway producer.

The Theatre Project introduced important formal innovations. The "Living Newspaper" is perhaps the best-known of these, emerging as the hallmark of the FTP's work. The Living Newspaper began with WPA journalists researching social issues of the day. The material they gathered was transformed into a new form of documentary theater -- large-cast, multimedia productions, innovatively staged. Living Newspapers pioneered techniques that are still seen as part of "experimental" theater; for instance, photographs, animation sequences and short films were projected onto scrims, adding layers of visual information to the dimensions provided by live actors and fixed scenery. Amplified voices and offstage loudspeakers supplemented the live voices of actors, commenting on the action, posing questions, adding factual information and crowd noise. Living Newspapers were often produced simultaneously in several cities, sometimes with local variations. The most famous "edition," One-Third of a Nation, was produced in 11 cities. It gave dramatic form to FDR's famous statement, "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished."

The Problem of Censorship

The New Deal cultural programs were marred by censorship. When WPA chief Harry Hopkins announced the formation of the Federal Theatre at the National Theater Conference in 1935, he referred to a theme that would figure importantly in the development and demise of the FTP and other components of Federal One:

I am asked whether a theater subsidized by the government can be kept free of censorship, and I say, yes, it is going to be kept free from censorship. What we want is a free, adult, uncensored theater. {8}

Despite Hopkins' pledge, the first act of censorship took place six months later. The first Living Newspaper, Ethiopia, portrayed Haile Selassie and Mussolini in the wake of the Italian invasion. When the New York FTP unit tried to get a recording of President Roosevelt's speech on Ethiopia to use in the production, the White House became alarmed at the content of the piece and banned the impersonation of any foreign ruler on the Federal Theatre stage. This order prompted Elmer Rice's resignation as the first director of the New York City FTP Unit {9}, though it did not usher in any period of censorship by executive order. Censorship did recur, but its sources and causes were diverse.

State and local WPA officials were the most frequent transgressors of Harry Hopkins' stated intention. When the New York City WPA director was looking to purge his program of radical artists, he spotted trouble in a four-panel mural at Brooklyn's Floyd Bennett Airport: he had three panels torn down and burned after he saw a figure who looked like Lenin and a plane with a red star that looked Soviet. The artist was fired, though he brought in his source photos to prove that the Lenin lookalike was really an early parachutist and the plane a U.S. model.

Illinois's WPA administrator shut down Paul Green's Hymn to the Rising Sun, the second production of the Chicago Negro Company, while the opening night crowd was milling around in the lobby. He sputtered that the play, was "of such a moral character that I can't even discuss it with a member of the press." The play dealt with the use of chain-gang labor in the South; its moral character didn't prevent it from opening later in New York, to rave reviews.

Despite the reservations of censors, WPA projects were highly popular with audiences and critics, and reviews were generally favorable. Press was divided: accounts in liberal newspapers urged the establishment of permanent local projects upon foundations laid through Federal One support. But papers opposed to the New Deal capitalized on every act of censorship or problem in the programs.

Artists, too, envisioned a future for the projects; in the words of painter Stuart Davis, then secretary of the American Artists' Congress, "The artists of America do not look upon the art projects as a temporary stopgap measure, but see in them the beginning of a new and better day for art in this country." {10} Larger forces were to intervene, however.

In a sense, Federal One itself ultimately fell to the censors. As the '30s drew on, the WPA became the most frequent target of New Deal critics in Congress and the press. Federal One, as a highly visible and controversial part of the larger agency, provided an especially good target for FDR's enemies. Their attacks led to the ultimate censorship: the termination of the projects.

By 1938, a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats began to press their opposition to New Deal cultural policies. Late in July, 1938, Representative J. Parnell Thomas of the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities (HUAC, also known in the '30s as the "Dies Committee," after its chair Martin Dies) claimed that he had "startling evidence" that the Theatre and Writers Projects were "a hotbed of Communists" and "one more link in the vast and unparalleled New Deal propaganda network." He announced that an investigation would be launched.

In its first six weeks of investigations, centering on Boston, New York City and San Francisco, the Dies Committee commanded some 500 column inches in The New York Times (as well as extensive coverage in other media) with no chance for rebuttal from either project. The Committee produced a small parade of disaffected former WPA workers who testified that the Projects were tools of the Communist Party designed to breed class hatred in the United States. The hearings came on the heels of a campaign to withdraw the Massachusetts edition of the American Guide Series, which included in its 675 pages 31 lines on the Sacco-Vanzetti case (in which two Italian immigrant anarchist activists had been executed over nationwide protests). {11} Similarly, the New Jersey state guidebook was criticized for its depiction of the 1935 shipbuilders' strike; according to Rep. Thomas, the guide was "written as if there had been trouble between capital and labor." The Dies Committee reported that "Communist phraseology had been inserted in guides from the states and here in Washington." {12}

The End of an Era

Just as the Dies Committee report was being issued and a further investigation launched, Rep. Clifton Woodrum declared his intention to "get the government out of the theater business." In June, 1939, the House Appropriations Committee which Woodrum chaired successfully barred future use of WPA funds for theater activities of any kind, bringing the Federal Theatre Project to an end virtually overnight, just four years after it was begun.

The chilling effect of continuing Dies Committee hearings, headlines about "red artists," and the rumblings of World War II brought a reorganization of Federal One in June 1939, signalling its final decline. Harry Hopkins quit to become Secretary of Commerce, leaving Col. Frances Harrington, formerly of the WPA's Administrative Manual Division, in charge. The WPA was re-named from "Works Progress" to "Work Projects" Administration, and greater authority was handed over to the states, where projects suffered delays or derailments as local censorship took its toll. Each project was given two months to come up with local sponsors who would pick up 25% of project costs; though it was thought this would lead to the quick death of most activities, even the controversial Federal Writers Project found sponsors for 46 of its 48 projects. By 1941, employment in the Writers Project had declined, but others showed increases.

Though these projects survived beyond 1939, their work had been transformed by the storm of controversy and the reorganization which followed in its wake. The national offices were reduced to "technical advisor" status, and most state units assigned employees to non-cultural work. The Federal Writers Project began to concentrate on recreation guides, especially for areas where World War II military training was beginning in earnest. Finally, the War put an end to all federally-subsidized artwork save that related directly to the war effort. The WPA was formally ended by a presidential proclamation in 1942.


Many excellent resources are available on the New Deal cultural projects, including the following: Hallie Flanagan, Arena (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1940); Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (New York: Avon, 1972); Richard D. McKinzie, The New Deal for Artists (Princeton University Press, 1973); Milton Meltzter, Violins & Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects (New York: Delacorte, 1976); and Art for the Millions, Francis V. O'Connor, ed. (Boston: NY Graphic Society, 1975).

  1. Flanagan, p. 13. (Return to referenced text)

  2. Basil Rauch, The History of the New Deal (New York: Creative Age Press, 1944), pp. 146-147. (Return to referenced text)

  3. Rauch, p. 158. (Return to referenced text)

  4. Flanagan, p. 54. (Return to referenced text)

  5. Holger Cahill, "American Resources for the Arts," Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930's by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, ed. Francis V. O'Connor (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1973), p. 41. (Return to referenced text)

  6. Stuart Davis,"American Artists' Congress," Art for the Millions (New York: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973), p. 249. (Return to referenced text)

  7. Flanagan, pp. 97-101. (Return to referenced text)

  8. Flanagan, p. 28. (Return to referenced text)

  9. See Elmer Rice, "The Federal Theatre Project," The Living Theatre (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), pp. 148-160, for Rice's discussion of his work with the FTP. (Return to referenced text)

  10. McKinzie, p. 250. (Return to referenced text)

  11. Sacco and Vanzetti were officially vindicated by the governor of Massachusetts in 1977. Nevertheless, the controversy over their culpability rages on. (Return to referenced text)

  12. Mangione, pp. 301-323. (Return to referenced text)

Arlene Goldbard and Don Adams are writers and consultants in organizational and cultural development. They established their consulting firm, Adams & Goldbard, in 1978, and have been based in Ukiah, California since 1985.

This essay is adapted from a previously unpublished manuscript entitled Cultural Democracy, written by the authors in 1986.

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