Is it Time for another WPA?

The last time America was mired in an economic crisis like the one we face today, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created to put America back to work. The Works Progress Administration brought us The Federal Arts Project (FAP) maintained more than 100 community art centers which produced 2,566 murals, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 paintings and 240,000 prints from 1936 to 1943 creating a new awareness of and appreciation for American art.

Not only did the WPA put artists and Artisans back to work, it left lasting symbols of civic pride.

During The Creative Coalition’s May 2009 visit to Capitol Hill, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) mentioned the Timberline Lodge was built as part of the WPA and is an enduring source of pride in the community.A WPA mural by Grant Wood graced the wall of the college library of the small town where I grew up.

The Works Progress Administration was also responsible of the Farm Service Administration which resulted in some of the best photographs of the 20th century from the FSA photographers Dorthea Lange, Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, Carl Mydans and Gordon Parks.

documentary photography
“Migrant Mother” by Dorthea Lange/FSA – Nipomo, California 1936
documentary photography miami photographer
‘Foreclosure of the American Dream’ Merced, California 2008

Robin Bronk, CEO of The Creative Coalition, writes in the foreword of Art & Soul:

“When faced with a collapsing economy, President Franklin Roosevelt tried to put Americans in all lines of work back on the job. Instead of singling out artists as somehow frivolous and unimportant to our nation’s economy, he instituted a host of programs designed to put federal funds into the arts, employing America’s creative talent and leaving a cultural legacy that endures still today.

“The highpoint of this commitment was the Works Progress Administration’s Federal One program, which put thousands of Americans to work in the arts. The government program was a lifeline for Jackson Pollock, Burt Lancaster, Sidney Lumet, Ralph Ellison, Studs Terkel, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, and thousands of other artists across the country.

“These programs created much-needed jobs in the immediate term, but they did much more. They fostered great talents that otherwise may have been lost. The work of the many great artists supported by the government in the 1930s still benefits us today. Their contributions to our culture endure, and their successful careers resulted in employment for many others in the years that followed.

“We cannot forget this lesson of our not-so-distant history. Faced with an economic downturn of staggering proportions, some attack any help for the arts as waste, ignoring the millions of Americans who earn their livings and support their families through their artistic endeavors and arts-related enterprises.”


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13 thoughts on “Is it Time for another WPA?”

  1. Hey Brian,
    What a great post. I think it’s totally time. Some of those images will forever rivet us inside and inspire us to push the limits. Thanks for taking the time to write this!
    Me Ra

  2. When we start seeing photographers in bread lines and sleeping by the tracks I think we’ll be ready for another WPA. We’re not there yet.

    The Feds aren’t going to wave any magic wand for us poor ‘artists’.

    Evans, Lee, Lange et al would have done great work anyway. And they would have owned it.

    Stock prices go down sometimes. So do home prices. People get fired.

    You can’t keep printing money unless you’re ready for 20% inflation again. I’m old enough to remember it. Not too many houses get purchased in that kind of economy.

    Better to work harder, smarter, and hungrier.

  3. sure hope people in the right Places ( who do create art funds ) c this post , n get thinking / actioning on this


  4. Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

    Abraham Lincoln
    16th president of US (1809 – 1865)

  5. Thanks, Brian. We’re so used to having the enormous volume of work produced through the WPA as part of the American cultural infrastructure that we sometimes forget the economic circumstances in which it was produced.

  6. I’ve been thinking the same thing, Brian. Even though we are not in the same situation as the Great Depression, there are great waves of change sweeping the country these days. We don’t need to get to the point of 25 percent unemployment to see the value of documentary work.

    It is impossible to say what might have been without the WPA, but it is possible to say that the world is a better place because of it and the artists and photographers who were part of that hard, smart and hungry work. Not many of us can afford to spend the time and energy to do the kind of amazing work that resulted from the Farm Service Administration.

    Let’s contact our elected representatives and put forward this idea. Who knows what good things might come of such a vision?

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