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WPA Federal Art Project, 1935–1943

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Color image of The New Highway #61, c.1939. Watercolor on paper by Clement Haupers.

The New Highway #61, c.1939. Watercolor on paper by Clement Haupers.

The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project was a New Deal relief program to fund the visual arts. From 1935 to 1943, the Minnesota division of the FAP employed local artists to create thousands of works in many media and styles, from large works of public art to posters and paintings.

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This sweeping plan, one of the "alphabet agencies” of the New Deal, was intended to employ millions of jobless Americans to carry out public works projects like constructing buildings, bridges, and roads.

But the WPA didn’t just employ people to construct bridges and buildings; it also funded visual artists, writers, musicians, and performers. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) provided work and support for visual artists in many media. According to Holger Cahill, the FAP’s national director, the ultimate goal of the project was to integrate the fine and practical arts with the daily life of American communities. While supporting Minnesota artists was at the center of the FAP, the program didn’t only give funding to artists to create artworks. The project had three other goals: to promote and support art education, to produce research in art, and to focus on how art could serve Minnesota communities.

Art production, the largest area of the FAP, was split into several divisions. Hundreds of works of art were created, in media including painting, sculpture, printmaking, murals, and photography. Some, like prints and oil and watercolor paintings, were made for exhibitions in galleries. Others, like large-scale murals, were made to enhance Minnesota buildings. There was also a division for posters and educational art. Poster artists designed and produced works that promoted public health and safety programs, advertised concerts and plays, and publicized the accomplishments of the WPA.

Most FAP artists worked in a realistic style called American Regionalism. Their techniques, however, ranged from the scrupulously realistic to a looser, freer, more impressionistic style. The subject matter was mostly “the American scene.” Artists created landscapes and scenes of farms and working farmers. They painted cityscapes and Minnesota’s industries—lumber mills, factories, and iron mines–as well as its people.

Many of Minnesota’s best-known artists were painters on canvas and paper: Clement Haupers, Dorothea Lau, Syd Fossum, Dewey Albinson, Cameron Booth, and Elof Wedin, to name just a few. Dorothea Lau’s Workers (1934–1941) is a quintessential FAP artwork. In her painting, workers (like those who were then building WPA projects) are painted in the soft strokes and realistic style typical of American Regionalism.

Haupers, the director of the FAP in Minnesota, was well known for his colorful, expressive landscapes. Works like The New Highway #61 seem to pull the viewer into the frame of the painting and down a newly constructed road. In The Meeting, oil painter and printmaker Syd Fossum illustrated the role of the “ordinary man” in the Minnesota community. Printmaking was also important. Stanford Fenelle, Alexander Oja, and Clara Mairs were some of the best known printmakers. Oja’s Filling Stations is a good example of an FAP cityscape.

Many FAP murals were also inspired by Minnesota. The mural program was intended to fulfill the FAP’s goal to serve local communities. It brought art to wide audiences and built the public’s awareness of art through installing large works of art in public places. Many of the themes in these murals drew inspiration and imagery from Minnesota themes. Subjects were generally optimistic and focused on straightforward scenes of everyday Minnesota life and history—landscapes, farming and farmers, workers, and American Indians. Among the artists that painted murals were David Granahan, Miriam Ibling, John Socha, Elsa Jemne, Lucia Wiley, John Norton, André Boratko, and Richard Haines.

Some FAP murals in Minnesota remained on display in government buildings, schools, zoos, and historical sites for decades. Granahan’s best-known work, painted with his wife, Lolita, in 1938, was for the St. Cloud Post Office. The mural, depicting the Stearns County granite industry, was aquired by the Stearns History Museum in 1979. After restoration, it was put on museum display in 1989. In the trophy room of the Minneapolis Armory are Lucia Wiley's History of the National Guard, and Early Minnesota by Elsa Jemne. John Norton, a Chicago painter, depicted the founding and growth of St. Paul in four murals in the third floor Council Chambers of St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse.

In addition to producing their own work, many FAP artists also taught in educational art centers established in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. These centers offered low-cost art classes, lectures, and exhibition space. Like the public art programs, the art center program was intended to promote art and artistic creativity to wide audiences. In Minneapolis, the FAP worked to develop a regional art center, the Walker Art Center, using the collections of the lumber baron T. B. Walker as the starting point for what is now a major American collection of modern art. It was meant to serve as a “meeting place for all the arts”—to be a museum for the collection and a champion of new and innovative art for all.

The Minnesota Artists’ Union (MAU; later the United American Artists of Minnesota – Local 86) was founded at the same time as the FAP and counted many FAP artists as members. The MAU lobbied for stable employment and relief for the artists working under the WPA, as well as for the promotion of Minnesota art and culture.

In 1939, federal budget cuts resulted in layoffs and reduced funding for the WPA, causing a nationwide series of strikes and protests. Minnesota FAP artists joined these protests, setting up picket lines and rallies around the St. Paul WPA headquarters and the state capitol. Many of these artists, including the president of the MAU, Syd Fossum, were arrested and temporarily jailed.

Also in 1939, as World War II was beginning, the New York World’s Fair opened, with a division dedicated to showcasing the WPA FAP. Represented at the Exhibition of Contemporary American Art were Haupers, Fossum, Wedin, Albinson, and other Minnesota artists.

The non-defense-related activities of the WPA were scaled down quickly following the entrance of the United States into World War II. Across the U.S., art-related projects were incorporated into the war services division; many ceased to exist. In Minnesota, strong local support and efficient administration allowed the FAP project to continue on a smaller scale until June 30, 1943, when the WPA FAP program officially ended nationwide.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Crump, Robert. Minnesota Prints and Printmakers, 1900–1945. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2009.

Hendrickson, Jr., Kenneth E. "The WPA Federal Art Projects in Minnesota, 1935–1943." Minnesota History 53, no. 5 (Spring 1993): 170–183.
http://www.mnhs.org/exhibits/wpa/v53i05p170-183.pdf

Johnson, Nancy A. Accomplishments: Minnesota Art Projects in the Depression Years; Essay and Catalog. Duluth: Tweed Museum of Art, 1976.

McCarney, Kathleen. “Art for a People: an Iconographic and Cultural Study of Mural Painting in Minnesota’s New Deal Art Programs." Undergraduate thesis, College of St. Benedict, 2004.
http://www.csbsju.edu/Documents/libraries/MccarneyThesis.pdf

OH1
Oral history interviews with Clement Haupers, June 17, 1977, and December 9, 1997
Oral History Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: In these sound recordings, Haupers discusses murals executed under the FAP in several locations in Minnesota (Sebeka, Eveleth, Stillwater, Mountain Iron, Faribault, Brandon) and a number of artists and artisans, most of whom worked in the FAP. He also describes his own career as an artist and administrator and refers to his dealings with other administrators of state and federal arts programs during the 1920s and 1930s.

O’Sullivan, Thomas. "A Job and a Movement: The WPA Federal Art Program in Minnesota." Minnesota History 53, no. 5 (Spring 1993): 184–195.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/53/v53i05p184-195.pdf

Minnesota Works Progress/Work Projects Administration. “Publications of the Minnesota Works Progress Administration and the Minnesota Work Projects Administration.” St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1983.

Syd Fossum Papers, 1930–1978
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00032.xml
Description: Correspondence (1934–1978), subject files, scrapbooks (1933–1965), art show catalogs (1930–1960s), minutes of the Minnesota Artists Association (1935–1938), writings (1947–1970), and mimeograph army newspapers (1945) of an artist and an activist for artists' concerns.

Related Images

Color image of The New Highway #61, c.1939. Watercolor on paper by Clement Haupers.
Color image of The New Highway #61, c.1939. Watercolor on paper by Clement Haupers.
Color image of Workers, c.1934–1941. Oil on canvas by Dorothea Lau.
Color image of Workers, c.1934–1941. Oil on canvas by Dorothea Lau.
Color image of The Meeting, 1937. Oil on canvas by Syd Fossum.
Color image of The Meeting, 1937. Oil on canvas by Syd Fossum.
Color image of Filling Stations, 1940. Lithograph on paper by Alexander Oja.
Color image of Filling Stations, 1940. Lithograph on paper by Alexander Oja.
Color image of Construction – St. Cloud, 1938. Tempera on plaster by David Granahan.
Color image of Construction – St. Cloud, 1938. Tempera on plaster by David Granahan.
Color image of Buy American Art, 1940. Screen print on paper by Joseph Binder.
Color image of Buy American Art, 1940. Screen print on paper by Joseph Binder.
Black and white photograph of artist John Socha at work on a Works Progress Administration mural at the New Ulm High School, 1941.
Black and white photograph of artist John Socha at work on a Works Progress Administration mural at the New Ulm High School, 1941.
Black and white photograph of Lucia Wiley at work on a mural for the Moorhead High School, 1941.
Black and white photograph of Lucia Wiley at work on a mural for the Moorhead High School, 1941.
Black and white photograph of a lithographer at work, 1938.
Black and white photograph of a lithographer at work, 1938.
Black and white photograph of Cameron Booth posing with a watercolor, 1937.
Black and white photograph of Cameron Booth posing with a watercolor, 1937.
Black and white photograph of a Federal Art Project, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1940.
Black and white photograph of a Federal Art Project, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1940.

Turning Point

In the spring of 1935, an executive order establishes the Minnesota division of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.

Chronology

1932

The Minnesota State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA) begins to support a short-lived art program.

December 1933

The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a precursor to the Federal Art Project (FAP), is funded by the Civil Works Administration.

May 6, 1935

Executive Order 7034 creates the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Federal Art Project is established under the WPA, along with similar organizations for creative professionals in other arts.

Summer 1935

Painter Clement Haupers is established as the Minnesota FAP director.

Summer 1935

The Minnesota Artists’ Union is founded.

December 27, 1935

The Federal Art Project Gallery opens in New York City.

1938

The University Gallery, housed on the campus of the University of Minnesota, receives FAP funding to support exhibitions for state-wide circulation, stressing the public-art orientation of the FAP.

1939

The Works Progress Administration is renamed the Work Project Administration. The Works Progress Administration is renamed the Work Project Administration.

January 1939

The Minnesota Arts Council, supported by funding from the FAP, is granted control of the Walker Art Galleries. The institution is renamed the Walker Art Center. Daniel Defenbacher (former assistant to FAP director Holger Cahill) is its first director.

Summer 1939

Federal budget cuts to the WPA program result in layoffs and reduced pay to artists. Minnesota artists, along with artists in other states, respond with a series of protests, rallies, and strikes.

1939

The WPA hosts a building at the New York World’s Fair. Haupers and Syd Fossum are among those artists represented in the FAP exhibition.

January 1940

The Walker Art Center opens to the public. Exhibitions display many FAP works, including paintings, graphic arts, and sculpture. Public art classes and programs are equally important to the Center’s mission.

June 1943

The WPA ends.