Roosevelt’s New Deal a renaissance for American art

In 1934, over a period of seven months amidst the depths of the Great Depression, American artists were paid by the government to create more than 15,000 works of art.

President Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the artwork that came out of it is the subject of an exhibition opening tomorrow at the Minnesota History Center.

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“Homeward Bound,” 1933-1934, oil on canvas, E. Martin Hennings. Part of “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” on view June 2 to Sept. 30, 2012 at the Minnesota History Center.

Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota Historical Society curator and acting head of collections Brian Szott told MPR’s Cathy Wurzer that the Public Works Art Project served two agendas:

Szott: One, and foremost, was to put people to work. So the Roosevelt administration saw that artists, as part of the American workforce, was suffering, and developed programs that allowed them to create works of art in order to be paid.

The secondary goal was that artists were asked to paint “the American scene,” which is a fairly open ended request. But what you see is that most of the work is fairly representational, you see rural landscapes, city scapes, you see portraits, you see signs of industry and other sorts of themes.

Wurzer: Did the WPA artists’ project actually help people survive? How much did they get for painting one of these works?

Szott: Artists were paid generally about $42 a week and were allowed four to six weeks to complete a painting. But if you run that through an inflation calculator, that’s about $350 – 360 a week in today’s wages. The artists themselves considered this period of time both in Minnesota and nationally a sort of renaissance, because it provided a sound footing from which they could continue working. And really many of these artists, because of the troubled times, would have had to change careers had it not been for these New Deal programs.

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New Deal-era art in the Minnesota History Center storeroom Wednesday, May 30, 2012. The museum is hosting a56-painting traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian American Art Museum called “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” which opens June 2, 2012.

MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

As part of the tour Wurzer and Szott visited the MNHS art storeroom, and looked at some of the 500 New Deal paintings in its collection. You can hear the rest of their conversation, and see an excellent slideshow of New Deal art, here.

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