'1934': Reflecting On America's First Big Art Buy

Ray Strong's 'Golden Gate Bridge' i i

hide captionPublic Works: Ray Strong's 1934 painting Golden Gate Bridge, a study of the landmark span under construction, is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "1934: A New Deal for Artists" exhibition.

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Ray Strong's 'Golden Gate Bridge'

Public Works: Ray Strong's 1934 painting Golden Gate Bridge, a study of the landmark span under construction, is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "1934: A New Deal for Artists" exhibition.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Painting From Life

Earle Richardson, 'Employment of Negroes in Agriculture' i i

hide captionEarle Richardson, Employment of Negroes in Agriculture

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Earle Richardson, 'Employment of Negroes in Agriculture'

Earle Richardson, Employment of Negroes in Agriculture

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother' i i

hide captionPhotographer Dorothea Lange was one of those who benefited from later, expanded government arts-funding programs. She traveled the country, photographing the experience of the Great Depression; her photograph Migrant Mother, taken in 1936, is perhaps her most famous.

Library of Congress
Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother'

Photographer Dorothea Lange was one of those who benefited from later, expanded government arts-funding programs. She traveled the country, photographing the experience of the Great Depression; her photograph Migrant Mother, taken in 1936, is perhaps her most famous.

Library of Congress

The economic stimulus package Congress passed last month includes $50 million in emergency funding for the National Endowment for the Arts — money some legislators didn't think belonged in the bill.

Doubters and supporters both, though, should find food for thought in a timely new show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum called "1934: A New Deal For Artists." The show looks at the first time American artists — thousands of them — got direct government support.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, like today's lawmakers, caught some flak for wanting to include artists in his relief program. He justified his decision, as American Art Museum director Betsy Broun explains, by saying, "They're workers, and they need to eat, too."

Broun says you can almost tell the artists were thankful, based on the vivid studies of the American experience they produced: a vibrant painting of a nighttime baseball game in West Nyack, N.Y., by Morris Kantor; an almost regal portrait of African-American cotton pickers by Earle Richardson; a wide view of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge by Ray Strong.

"There was a lot of despair ... and shame at being on government relief," says Ann Wagner, one of the curators of the "New Deal" show. For both artists and Americans at large, "these works showed there was plenty to be proud of in their home areas."

Wagner says the program ultimately produced more than 15,000 works, all of them intended for public spaces such as post offices, libraries and hospitals.

The success of the program led to more government investment in art and artists, with various programs throughout the Depression.

Accomplished photographers, for instance, were sent out specifically to document the effects of the Depression on rural America.

One result was Dorothea Lange's iconic Migrant Mother photograph. In a 1964 interview with the Smithsonian, Lange said the people she photographed were often grateful she was there to help record their stories.

"It meant a lot that the government in Washington was aware enough even to send you out," said Lange.

Broun points out that Roosevelt once said, "A hundred years from now, my administration will be known for its art, not for its relief." Looking back on the legacy of the '30s program, Broun says, "what we see is [that] they gave us back to ourselves."

Today, when it comes to arts money in the economic stimulus, expectations are different. Artists and arts organizations need to prove their work will pump money into the local economy.

But the New Deal did validate the role of artists in American society. Then, as now, the government did give money to artists — just so long as the artists give the country something practical in return.

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