A New Deal for Artists

Artists today have a number of safety nets to help ease the pain brought on by a battered economy, but during the Great Depression it took a federal stimulus program of sorts to protect many of the nation’s painters and sculptors.

The Public Works of Art Project was the first federal program to support the arts. The program — the brainchild of the Roosevelt administration — took more than 3,700 artists and charged them with lifting the spirits of the nation through depictions of “the American scene.”

Over the short life of the program, from December 1933 to June 1934, artists created more than 15,000 murals, paintings and sculptures to adorn public buildings, such as libraries, post offices and schools. Of those works, 56 are now on display at the free exhibit, ‘1934: A New Deal for Artists’ at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

While the program did not pay much — on average just a little more than $75 per work of art — it nonetheless provided a critical boost to artists at a time when the nation’s jobless rate hovered around 25 percent, noted George Gurney, deputy chief curator of the American Art Museum.

“Today there are more safety nets for artists in this society,” Gurney said. Despite the weak economy, he added, there are more places for artists to turn to for help today than existed in the 1930s, such as the National Endowment for the Arts. “So artists in that sense are I think a little more insulated than they were at that particular time where they were maybe making signs for the drug store — ’99 Cents Off’ — and then going off and doing their own painting.”

“1934: A New Deal for Artists” marks the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Project, and runs through Jan. 3, 2010, before going on a national tour.