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date: 01 October 2023

The New Deal and the Artslocked

The New Deal and the Artslocked

  • Sharon MusherSharon MusherStockton University


During the Great Depression, artists and intellectuals—like others who were down-and-out—turned to the federal government to demand work and a livable wage. In a brief flowering of public art, the New Deal funded thousands of needy and meritorious artists to decorate, document, entertain, and teach the nation. Working through Federal Project Number One under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which included the Federal Theatre Project, Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Writers’ Project as well as the Treasury’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (renamed the Section of Fine Arts) and Roy Stryker’s Historical Section, which operated under the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, and then the Office of War Information, the artists produced hundreds of thousands of works of art to entertain millions of Americans.

The arts projects democratized the artists receiving public support, the citizens creating and experiencing original works of art, creative styles, and artistic subjects. They drew attention to previously neglected publics, including formerly enslaved people, Native Americans, migrant workers, and the working class. But art administrators also limited artists’ autonomy. They rejected nudity and overt politics, maintained racial segregation, and upheld racial and gendered discrimination. Political realignment, budget cuts, decentralization, congressional hearings, and loyalty oaths further constrained artists. In 1939, Congress terminated the Theatre Project and reorganized the other art projects. Congress defunded most of the remaining art projects in 1943, almost two years after the United States entered World War II. Despite a relatively short life and enduring controversies, New Deal art remains an important example of how robust public patronage can stimulate the arts and society.


  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • Cultural History

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