The WPA/FAP in Rochester: How the Memorial Art Gallery Became the home for Art Employment during the Great Depression

Portrait Photograph of Gertrude Herdle Moore

During the Great Depression, Gertrude Herdle Moore was serving as Director of the Memorial Art Gallery. Moore had taken over after her father, George Herdle, died abruptly in 1922. At only twenty-five years old, she was both the youngest museum director in the country and one of only three women in that type of position. It was under Moore that the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project found its home at the MAG.[38]

As the director of the MAG, Moore also served as project director for the Federal Arts Project for the duration that it existed in Rochester. Beginning in February of 1936, the Gallery was the center for this project. The 1936 Annual Report stated that ten Rochester artists were employed by the WPA/FAP and were working on five different projects. Under the WPA, the federal government contributed all of the labor expenses for the programs and sponsors in each participating city, which in the case of Rochester were the Board of Education and the Memorial Art Gallery. Some of the projects undertaken in Rochester under the WPA/FAP included posters for points of public interest to be used in classrooms and auditoriums, decorative hangings for common areas in public schools, murals for the auditoriums of several high schools, and two accurate-scale models of temples for use in school rooms.[39]

N719 K44 1962-009.jpg
An image of the Memorial Art Gallery's upper floor from a 1962 publication talking about the community impact of the museum. 
A poster made by Erik Hans Krause during the WPA/FAP

While Rochester was nowhere near the bustling metropolis and home for experimentation that New York City had become during the WPA era, the Federal Arts Project still thrived in the small city, and the ten artists that it employed created lasting contributions to Rochester’s culture. The supervisor for the Federal Art Project in Rochester was Erik Hans Krause, and he is credited for much of the program’s success in the city. Krause himself was also an artist, and he created both posters and stylized hangings for Rochester schools, both of which were praised by the FAP’s regional director. 

In a small city like Rochester, national art funding such as the Federal Arts Project was arguably more important than in a large city renowned for its arts and culture like New York City. Though Rochester had always had a thriving arts scene, it didn’t have nearly the resources and pull that New York did. No matter how well the arts did in Rochester, the fact of the matter is that it was always difficult for artists to actually sell their work. The Federal Arts Project and related New Deal arts programs brought Rochester’s most accomplished artists out of their isolation by giving them opportunity to work directly in schools, museums, and other community areas. This was especially important in smaller cities like Rochester where most people tended to think of artists as isolated geniuses, with a great deal of talent but no conception of the needs of the community. 

ND 237 P384 A4 2015-019 pg87.jpg
WPA artwork in a Rochester school being examined by two kindergarteners

Holger Cahill himself identified a goal of the FAP as “an attempt to bridge the gap between the American artist and the American public,”[40] and in Rochester, that was exactly how it functioned. This was especially apparent in Rochester’s schools: with so much of the FAP art targeted towards the public school system, children were seeing art around them more than they ever had. Erik Hans Kraus once said “take a mural in an auditorium– they see it almost every day and from the constant contact with it they begin to absorb what art can really mean."[41] This is exactly what happened: throughout the years that the FAP was active in Rochester, schoolchildren were able to see artists working around them more closely than they ever had. Even years after the project ended, many of the murals created during the WPA remain on the walls of their high school auditoriums to this day.