The WPA's Federal Arts Project and it's National Impact on Art
There were four main art projects that were created during the New Deal to meet the needs of unemployed artists in the United States. These projects were the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (Section), the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project (WPA/FAP). The last of these, the Federal Arts Project, had the broadest scope and is often considered the most impactful on the culture of the nation.
The Federal Arts Project, which was directed by the art curator Edgar Holger Cahill, had two major missions: one was to employ the nation’s struggling artists during the Great Depression, the other was to engage the public with contemporary art. At its height, the program employed 5,000 artists. By the end of the project, it had created 2,500 murals, 18,000 sculptures, 108,000 paintings, and 200,000 prints. The sheer quantity of art produced in only an eight year period was unprecedented in American history, leading to new innovation and experimentation in art. Another prominent impact of the FAP was that it helped to establish hundreds of community art centers across the country, which offered art classes, workshops, lectures, and traveling exhibitions.
With all of the artists being employed by the Federal Arts Project, or FAP, art was able to flourish nationwide. As project director, Cahill explicitly focused on artistic production, education, and outreach, rather than becoming fixated on the idea of creating “artistic masterpieces.” Cahill did not want to measure the ultimate success of the project based on creating a few magnificent pieces of art that would become famous, or employing a few artists whose names would become known by the masses. Instead, Cahill’s primary goal was to create a climate in which creativity would thrive, and art would be brought to communities that may not have had access to great works of art before.
Beyond the short term impact that the WPA/FAP had on employment, the project also helped artistic experimentation thrive in a unique way that created lasting influence on certain art styles. Most notably, the emergence of abstract impressionism can be traced back to a number of painters employed by the FAP. For arguably the first time in American history, art had become viable as a full-time career for the working-class man due to the availability of public funding. This meant that the realm of creative expression was nearly free of the tastes of art collectors and the broader commercial art market, which encouraged creative experimentation in a unique way. In New York City, several painters who were employed by the WPA/FAP became leaders of the new artistic movement known as abstract impressionism, most notably Jackson Pollock and Arshille Gorky.