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The Depression-era art of the Federal Art Project in Minnesota

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“The New Highway #61,” c.1939. Watercolor on paper by Clement Haupers.

The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project was a New Deal relief program to fund the visual arts. From 1935 to 1943, the Minnesota division of the FAP employed local artists to create thousands of works in many media and styles, from large works of public art to posters and paintings.

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by Franklin D. Roosevelt. This sweeping plan, one of the “alphabet agencies” of the New Deal, was intended to employ millions of jobless Americans to carry out public works projects like buildings, bridges, and roads.

But the WPA didn’t just employ people to build bridges and buildings; it also funded visual artists, writers, musicians, and performers. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) provided work and support for visual artists in many media. According to Holger Cahill, the FAP’s national director, the ultimate goal of the project was to integrate the fine and practical arts with the daily life of American communities. While supporting Minnesota artists was at the center of the FAP, the program didn’t only give funding to artists to create artworks. The project had three other goals: to promote and support art education, to produce research in art, and to focus on how art could serve Minnesota communities.

Art production, the largest area of the FAP, was split into several divisions. Hundreds of works of art were created, in media including painting, sculpture, printmaking, murals, and photography. Some, like prints and oil and watercolor paintings, were made for exhibitions in galleries. Others, like large-scale murals, were made to enhance Minnesota buildings. There was also a division for posters and educational art. Poster artists designed and produced works that promoted public health and safety programs, advertised concerts and plays, and publicized the accomplishments of the WPA.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“Workers,” c.1934–1941. Oil on canvas by Dorothea Lau.

Most FAP artists worked in a realistic style called American Regionalism. Their techniques, however, ranged from the scrupulously realistic to a looser, freer, more impressionistic style. The subject matter was mostly “the American scene.” Artists created landscapes and scenes of farms and working farmers. They painted cityscapes and Minnesota’s industries—lumber mills, factories, and iron mines–as well as its people.

Many of Minnesota’s best-known artists were painters on canvas and paper: Clement Haupers, Dorothea Lau, Syd Fossum, Dewey Albinson, Cameron Booth, and Elof Wedin, to name just a few. Dorothea Lau’s Workers (1934–1941) is a quintessential FAP artwork. In her painting, workers (like those who were then building WPA projects) are painted in the soft strokes and realistic style typical of American Regionalism.

Haupers, the director of the FAP in Minnesota, was well known for his colorful, expressive landscapes. Works like The New Highway #61 seem to pull the viewer into the frame of the painting and down a newly constructed road. In The Meeting, oil painter and printmaker Syd Fossum illustrated the role of the “ordinary man” in the Minnesota community. Printmaking was also important. Stanford Fenelle, Alexander Oja, and Clara Mairs were some of the best known printmakers. Oja’s Filling Stations is a good example of an FAP cityscape.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“The Meeting,” 1937. Oil on canvas by Syd Fossum.

Many FAP murals were also inspired by Minnesota. The mural program was intended to fulfill the FAP’s goal to serve local communities. It brought art to wide audiences and built the public’s awareness of art through installing large works of art in public places. Many of the themes in these murals drew inspiration and imagery from Minnesota themes. Subjects were generally optimistic and focused on straightforward scenes of everyday Minnesota life and history—landscapes, farming and farmers, workers, and American Indians. Among the artists that painted murals were David Granahan, Miriam Ibling, John Socha, Elsa Jemne, Lucia Wiley, John Norton, André Boratko, and Richard Haines.

Some FAP murals in Minnesota remained on display in government buildings, schools, zoos, and historical sites for decades. Granahan’s best-known work, painted with his wife, Lolita, in 1938, was for the St. Cloud Post Office. The mural, depicting the Stearns County granite industry, was aquired by the Stearns History Museum in 1979. After restoration, it was put on museum display in 1989. In the trophy room of the Minneapolis Armory are Lucia Wiley’s History of the National Guard, and Early Minnesotaby Elsa Jemne. John Norton, a Chicago painter, depicted the founding and growth of St. Paul in four murals in the third floor Council Chambers of St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse.

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
“Buy American Art,” 1940. Screen print on paper by Joseph Binder.

In addition to producing their own work, many FAP artists also taught in educational art centers established in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. These centers offered low-cost art classes, lectures, and exhibition space. Like the public art programs, the art center program was intended to promote art and artistic creativity to wide audiences. In Minneapolis, the FAP worked to develop a regional art center, the Walker Art Center, using the collections of the lumber baron T. B. Walker as the starting point for what is now a major American collection of modern art. It was meant to serve as a “meeting place for all the arts”—to be a museum for the collection and a champion of new and innovative art for all.

The Minnesota Artists’ Union (MAU; later the United American Artists of Minnesota – Local 86) was founded at the same time as the FAP and counted many FAP artists as members. The MAU lobbied for stable employment and relief for the artists working under the WPA, as well as for the promotion of Minnesota art and culture.

In 1939, federal budget cuts resulted in layoffs and reduced funding for the WPA, causing a nationwide series of strikes and protests. Minnesota FAP artists joined these protests, setting up picket lines and rallies around the St. Paul WPA headquarters and the state capitol. Many of these artists, including the president of the MAU, Syd Fossum, were arrested and temporarily jailed.

Also in 1939, as World War II was beginning, the New York World’s Fair opened, with a division dedicated to showcasing the WPA FAP. Represented at the Exhibition of Contemporary American Art were Haupers, Fossum, Wedin, Albinson, and other Minnesota artists.

The non-defense-related activities of the WPA were scaled down quickly following the entrance of the United States into World War II. Across the U.S., art-related projects were incorporated into the war services division; many ceased to exist. In Minnesota, strong local support and efficient administration allowed the FAP project to continue on a smaller scale until June 30, 1943, when the WPA FAP program officially ended nationwide.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/01/2016 - 12:41 pm.

    A reason

    A fundamental reason for the federal art programs of the era was purely as a way of creating propaganda. Not that that differentiates it from much of the art produced over human history. Artists have always primarily glorified their benefactors whether it be a church, king or state. Not only is there the marketing effect in the time that the art is created but also the way that art (not just visual but all other forms as well) change how the people in power are perceived in history.

    History is written not simply by the victors but by those who work to leave a compelling story behind. Of course bending historic perceptions isn’t really beneficial as a whole but it sure helps those who bother writing it.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/01/2016 - 02:32 pm.


      Most WPA-sponsored art celebrated ordinary people working at commonplace tasks. Historical murals tended not to show heroic figures, but nameless voyageurs, settlers, farmers, etc. The people in power were generally omitted.

      • Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/02/2016 - 09:33 am.

        no such distinction

        Propaganda doend’t have to include direct representation of an individual. When the narrative of politics changes so does the propaganda. A benefactor could be a system or political party as well. Such was the case during the time in question. Simply select artists who generally agree with the intended message and commission items that support ideas/programs which those in power want to promote. The federally sponsored art programs referenced in the article did just that and the results were exactly as intended. Help bend the narrative of history in favor of those in charge at the time.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 03/01/2016 - 01:16 pm.

    Unusual for the arts

    The federal arts programs were meant to and did provide a way for artists to continue at their work, on a very broad scale.. Secondarily they promoted the arts per se, and some of the programs had specific goals, such as the creation of the state tourist guides in the Writers Project. Some of the programs had administrators who tried to impose their views.

    One very remarkable program, by today’s standards, was the Easel Painters Project. On the east coast, conservatives–administrators or certain artists–tried to exclude the more stylistically innovative artists. Two of the progressives–Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis–fought a winning battle against the conservatives. In fact for several years Davis spent most of his time on that fight instead of painting.

    As Roger L. Stevens, the first head of the National Endowment for the Arts aptly pointed out, the Easel Painters Project enabled many of the artists who later became famous in the 1950’s to survive and continue their work, simply because of the “shotgun approach” that did not select winners and losers.

    While we lack the funds, the will and the motivation of a depression-era crisis to create arts programs of such broad sweep, we’ve gone to the other extreme in adopting governmental arts programs based on the model of private foundations. Rather than explore alternative methods, we support institutions–which is reasonable–but we also dole out money based on judging the artistic value of specific applicants. By making those official judgments our governmental arts agencies are bound to support a great deal of mediocrity and miss or even avoid helping efforts that might later gain recognition.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 03/01/2016 - 01:31 pm.

    Secondary costs

    I should add that the present model has spawned a profusion of “arts administrators.” I understand that some academic institutions even award degrees in arts administration. But please note, the administrators who actually perform work necessary for actual arts activity still bear traditional titles such as “orchestra manager” and “museum director.”

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