Federal Art Project: Documentary Film Exploring the Arts of the WPA

Set for a relaunch, the documentary Enough to Live on: The Arts of the WPA celebrates the Great Depression-era art to come out of the WPA and Federal Art Project.

Dec 11, 2023By Anna Sexton, MA & BA Art History, BA Int'l Relations
"The Wealth of the Nation," Seymour Fogel, 1938. Mural. Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, Washington, D.C.
“The Wealth of the Nation,” Seymour Fogel, 1938. Mural. Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, Washington, D.C.


At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, nearly 13 million Americans were out of a job. However, through initiatives such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), FDR aimed to put them back to work and regain morale. Soon, people all over the country were building America’s infrastructure, from parks to highways. Artists were put back to work as well. Rather than wielding hammers and axes, American artists picked up their paintbrushes, pens, and clay and got to work creating a new era of American art.


Initially released in 2015, Enough to Live on: The Arts of the WPA, written, narrated, and directed by Michael Maglaras for 217 Films, recounts the story of how out of the depths of the Great Depression sprung a flourishing production of federally funded art that gave Americans back their hope and sense of purpose.


Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA from 217 Films on Vimeo.


The Stock Market Crash, Great Depression, & Election of FDR

Crowd of people gather outside the New York Stock Exchange following the Crash of 1929. Source: Library of Congress


When the stock market crashed on the fateful date of October 29, 1929, the world descended into chaos. Everybody, from the white-collar businessman to the neighborhood grocer, was deeply affected by the Great Depression, unsure of what would come next, not only for their families but also for their nation. By the end of 1931, unemployment had reached 8 million.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

President Herbert Hoover, a Quaker and humanitarian, thought people simply needed to use “individual initiative” to raise themselves out of the crisis. However, this quickly proved to be not the case. Americans were growing panicked, and a deeper crisis was brewing. In May 1932, veterans marched on Washington, demanding an advance on a payment promised for 1945 for their military service in the First World War. Though Hoover called for a calm dispersal, the marchers were violently evicted from the public spaces they occupied by American military forces—the government had turned against its own people, and as it did so, the veterans screamed, “This means revolution!”


Veterans of the Bonus Expeditionary Forces marching across the east plaza of the US Capitol, photo by Underwood & Underwood, 1932. Source: Library of Congress


From afar, the Soviet Union watched the US with interest. Joseph Stalin thought that with the nation in the throes of a crippling economic depression, a communist revolution would not be so far off.


However, this communist takeover did not happen. On November 8, 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, and the Great Depression took a new turn. FDR believed that Americans needed to work. For many Americans, the concept of work was (and is) strongly associated with freedom. When so many lost their jobs, they felt as though they had lost their freedom and, for some, even their identity. From a political-ideological standpoint, some in the government feared that mass unemployment could also potentially give people the time to reflect on the failings of capitalism that brought them into the Depression in the first place.


Therefore, one of FDR’s main goals was to put Americans back to work in order to lift the nation out of the Depression. He thus promised a New Deal; he created jobs for the sake of jobs. FDR’s administration launched one of the largest federal spending campaigns in the nation’s history.


Pre-WPA: The Public Works Art Project & the Section of Painting & Sculpture

Snow Shovellers by Jacob Getlar Smith, 1934. Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC


Artists were included in FDR’s plans. For Franklin D. Roosevelt, the creation of art was work, which meant it was necessary to include the creators of art—musicians, poets, painters, writers, sculptors, actors, dancers—in his plans. Additionally, the benefits to arts projects would be twofold: not only would they keep artists busy with work, but the US would also effectively create a distinct oeuvre documenting the unique American experience, thus giving all other Americans a sense of identity and community.


Before the establishment of the famous Works Progress Administration, two consecutive organizations were set up to support artists through the Treasury Department: The Public Works Art Project (1933-34) and the Section of Painting and Sculpture (1934-1943).


George Biddle painting his mural Society Freed Through Justice located on the fifth-floor stairway in the Department of Justice, Washington DC, photo by Harris & Ewing, 1936. Source: Library of Congress


In a near-mythological origin story, the employment of artists to create art during the Depression may have begun with a letter to FDR written by George Biddle on May 9, 1933. Biddle was a lawyer by trade and said to have been a former classmate of FDR, who left his career to become a painter and illustrator. Taking inspiration from Mexico and its muralists, Biddle suggested that FDR hire artists, particularly muralists, to decorate the walls of government buildings with work that would create a “collective American expression.”


Although FDR was at first hesitant about Biddle’s suggestion, Eleanor, his wife, loved the idea. She enthusiastically advocated for federal support for the arts. Sure enough, on December 8, 1933, just a mere seven months after Biddle’s letter to FDR, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was formed and administered by Edward Bruce. Though it lasted less than one year, PWAP engaged around 4,000 artists to decorate non-federal public buildings around the country.


Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction (second panel) by Aaron Douglas, 1934. Source: New York Public Library


Of note was the strong collaboration between PWAP (and later the WPA) and the Harlem Artist Guild, which worked to ensure the success of African American artists. With the Harlem Renaissance in full swing, funding from the federal government allowed the movement, which began in 1918, to continue well into the 1930s. Some of the greatest artists started their careers through the work projects, and some of the greatest works of the Harlem Renaissance were also created during this time.


Such is the case with Aaron Douglas’ four-part mural Aspects of Negro Life, installed in the New York Public Library, which was created in 1934 under the Public Works of Art Project. One of the leading “painterly voices” of the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas chronicled the shared history of Black Americans in what is today considered his chef d’oeuvre.


Edward Bruce, left, with Eleanor Roosevelt, L.W. Robert Jr., and Forbes Watson, photo by Harris & Ewing, 1933 or 1934. Source: Library of Congress


As FDR’s New Deal arts administrator, Edward Bruce also headed the Section of Painting and Sculpture, which was created after PWAP was shut down in 1934. Like its predecessor, the Section’s primary function was to create art, primarily murals, to be placed in public buildings, particularly post offices. During its run, the Section commissioned some 1,300 murals and over 300 sculptures.


However, Edward Bruce did not see his organization solely as a means of creating work for the sake of work; rather, he wanted to hire well-known, well-established artists to make the US a new global center for art. He essentially wanted to recreate Florence in the 15th century, only instead of artists working for private patrons, they would be working for the federal government. Bruce wanted to use the program to shape the identity of the US through its art.


In a way, Bruce achieved this. For one, the Section commissions were competitive, and artists were only awarded government contracts after applying and winning, meaning that those deemed the most skillful, and whose art best reflected the spirit of the time, could be chosen. Additionally, it is important to remember that at the time, before the advent of telecommunications, people frequented government buildings much more often. Thus, the interest of artists painting murals in government buildings was to have the average American citizen, not just government workers, gaze upon art that reflected their shared American experience.


Establishment of the Works Progress Administration & The Federal Art Project

The Wealth of the Nation by Seymour Fogel, 1938. Source: US General Services Administration


On May 6, 1935, FDR signed the executive order authorizing the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the largest work project in the history of the US. Run by Harry Hopkins, the WPA had some 20 million people on some form of relief by the end of the year.


What made the WPA so remarkable for artists was the fact that the WPA allowed them to return to work practicing their own craft rather than being put to work building highways or railroads. Under the umbrella of the WPA, several organizations were created to take care of artists working in nearly all disciplines: The Federal Theater Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writer’s Project, and the Federal Art Project. In effect, the federal government was virtually the only support for artists during this time.


Poster for the Federal Art Project’s National Exhibition: Index of American Design at Marshall Field and Co. in Illinois, 1937. Source: Library of Congress


The Federal Art Project employed artists to create art of all mediums; there was no longer a focus on murals for public buildings. Many community art centers were established for the production, exhibition, and promotion of art all over the US.


Not only that, but the Federal Art Project also set out to study and document American design in order to establish a distinct American identity in the visual arts. The result of this research was the Index of American Design, an impressive tome of over 18,000 watercolor renderings of American folk and decorative arts objects from the colonial period through 1900. Over three hundred artists contributed to this work between 1935 and 1942, and the Index can be appreciated today as an archive of a national historical aesthetic created by Americans.


Enough to Live on: An Homage to FDR’s Support for Artists

New Deal Art mural by Charles W. Ward in the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building & US Courthouse in Trenton, New Jersey, 1933. Source: Library of Congress


A sentimental and stimulating essay in film, Michael Maglaras’ Enough to Live on: The Arts of the WPA pays homage to the unprecedented support for artists during one of the darkest times in American history. Some of the largest initiatives for public-funded art found their start during the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that the creation of art was work, and to get out of the Depression, the American people, including artists, must work at their craft.


Though Maglaras acknowledges that much of the art to come out of this period can be seen as second- or third-rate and quite repetitive—“too many men with shovels in their hands; too much muck about the dignity of backbreaking labor”—a lot of the work produced “was profoundly good; not only that, but that this film needed to be about…the recognition that when creative persons do what they do, they are working.”


By focusing the film on the “profoundly good,” it becomes clear that FDR achieved his goals for American art. Featuring incredible works by Jacob Lawrence, Dorothea Lange, Aaron Douglas, and Seymour Fogel, among many others, Enough to Live on celebrates not only the creativity of the visual arts in the Depression era but also the flourishing production of writers, playwrights, musicians, composers, and poets. Big names in American creative and artistic culture are mentioned—John Steinbeck, Orson Welles, Zora Neale Hurston, Juanita Hall, Hallie Flanagan, to name a few—leading one to realize just how many artists, today considered cornerstones of American aesthetics and tradition, came out of the WPA.


Mail Service in the Tropics mural by Rockwell Kent in the Ariel Rios Federal Building in Washington DC, 1937. Source: Library of Congress


There was hope. There was a newfound sense of direction and purpose that was given not just to the artists employed but also to those who viewed the works. The art created during the Great Depression contained messages of action and portrayed the American experience. FDR’s goals were ultimately achieved. Artists were kept busy and working; their production spurred economic and creative growth, establishing a unique form of American art today known fittingly as the “Arts of the WPA.”


“The WPA gave me enough to live on.” – Willem de Kooning

Author Image

By Anna SextonMA & BA Art History, BA Int'l RelationsAnna holds a Master in Art History from the Université de Strasbourg as well as a BA from the University of Washington in Art History and International Relations. Her specialization is in provenance research and the history of collections. She has worked in several museums and art galleries in Seattle, Dresden, Leipzig, Cologne, and Strasbourg. When she is not writing & researching, Anna enjoys dancing ballet, learning languages, doing crosswords, and drinking tea.