’1934′: Reflecting On America’s First Big Art Buy March 5, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Economic Crisis, Labor.
Tags: art, artists, betsy broun, depression art, dorothea lange, earle richardson, elizabeth blair, franklin roosevelt, golden gate bridge, great depression, library of congress, migrant mother, morris kantor, national endowment arts, nea, New Deal, new deal artists, npr, photographers, ray strong, roger hollander, smithsonian, smithsonian american art museum, workers
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NPR, March 5, 2009
“Looking back on the legacy of the 1930s program … what we see is [that] they gave us back to ourselves.”
Betsy Broun, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Who Was Eligible?
Morning Edition, March 5, 2009 · 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.