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American Posters of the WPA-Era: 1935-1943 (Virtual Exhibition)

As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—a massive stimulus initiative designed to lift the United States out of the Great Depression—the WPA (Works Progress Administration; later Work Projects Administration) was established in 1935 and existed until 1943. The Federal Art Program was established as an arm of the WPA under the directorship of Holger Cahill, husband of the influential MoMA curator Dorothy Miller (the couple were married in 1938). Poster divisions of the Federal Art Program existed in some eighteen states, with the largest based in New York, led by Bauhaus–trained, German artist Richard Floethe. Employing numerous artists, including women such as Vera Bock, Dorothy Fellnagel, and Katherine Milhous (Dorothy Waugh was employed directly by the National Park Service), the poster divisions promoted activities of the Federal Art Program itself, such as its exhibitions at New York’s Federal Art Gallery (225 West 57th Street), as well as those of the Federal Music, Theatre (including the Negro Theatre Project), and Writers' Projects. They also produced posters for non–cultural arms of the WPA including Labor, Resettlement, Health, Sport, Education, National Parks, individual State initiatives, and Community Activities.

Structurally, the Federal Art Program represents a unique moment in United States history when the federal government, rather than private industry or individuals, acted as a key commissioning body for artistic production. To present these posters now, as our culture is on the brink of another devastating financial and social crisis, reminds us of the role that government has played in the past. This precedent suggests that concern for the social good need not be the exclusive purview of grassroots initiatives or individual philanthropy, but—in both times of crisis and normalcy—can be officially, governmentally mandated.

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