Holger Cahill (January 13, 1887–July 8, 1960) was national director of the Federal Art Project of the Works Project Administration (WPA) from its inception in 1935 to its termination in 1943. Born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarsson, Cahill was the child of parents who immigrated to North Dakota from Iceland. He spent most his adolescence in a variety of manual jobs from Winnipeg to Shanghai before settling in New York City, where his connections with the arts community led him into journalism. He began taking courses at Columbia University and, from 1922, working for the Newark Museum in New Jersey, where he organized major exhibitions of American folk art. In 1932 Cahill became acting director of the New York City's Museum of Modern Art, for which he arranged an exhibition entitled "American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750–1900." A prolific author and a respected authority on art, Cahill rejected conventional distinctions between "fine" and "folk" art, and he idealized the antebellum period when, he believed, the arts and society had been totally integrated through universal practice. Federal service provided Cahill with the opportunity to restore the arts to "the people," both as producers and consumers.
While the provision of relief for destitute artists was the Federal Art Project's principal function, Cahill sought to recover the "American culture pattern" in both the scope and diversity of its programs. This involved the promotion and dispersion of art throughout the nation. Art projects were established in thirty-eight states and the Federal Art Project employed some ten thousand artists who produced 128,000 murals, easel paintings, and sculptures and 240,000 prints that decorated schools, libraries, and other public buildings. The sheer scale of the project was complemented by its variety. There were four dimensions to the Federal Art Project's work involving the promotion of creative art, art education, community service, and research. Almost 50 percent of its personnel were engaged in creative art, and the Federal Art Project assisted painters who would later become internationally renowned, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. Approximately, 25 percent of the Federal Art Project's workforce was involved in establishing 103 art centers that offered art classes in twenty-three subjects. Travelling exhibits and "Art Weeks" brought art to a wider public.
Cahill also oversaw the recording of an American vernacular tradition. The Index of American Design employed five hundred workers in thirty-five states and compiled 22,000 plates of textiles, furniture, ceramics, and other artifacts. For Cahill, the masses were crucial to the nation's art resources, and in 1939 he organized the "Contemporary Unknown American Painters" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In contrast to his counterpart, Edward Bruce, who headed the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts, Cahill did not discriminate against the avant-garde, and major commissions were given to artists such as Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky.
The WPA was a complex organization, and much of Cahill's work as director was consumed by administrative matters, such as liaison with state authorities, negotiations with unions, and political lobbying. Dependent upon annual congressional appropriations, the existence of the Federal Art Project was precarious and liable to the kind of swingeing budget cuts that occurred in 1936 and 1937. Cahill understood that the Federal Art Project was vulnerable because its per capita costs were 70 percent higher than for manual workers in the WPA, and his efforts to maintain the project in the face of widespread criticism required him, at times, to work a nineteen-hour day. When Congress abolished Federal One in 1939 and turned responsibility for the remaining arts projects to states, Cahill remained in a coordinating role, although he became less influential. If his vision for the integration of the arts and society was not fully realized, his efforts provided relief for thousands of artists and nurtured those artists who would form the vanguard of abstract expressionism in the postwar era. After the termination of the federal art project in 1943, Cahill returned to New York City to concentrate on writing fiction.
Cahill, Holger, and Alfred Barr, Jr., eds. Art in America: A Complete Survey. 1935.
Contreras, Belisario R. Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art. 1983.
Mavigliano, George J., and Richard A. Lawson. The Federal Art Project in Illinois, 1935–1943. 1990.
McDonald, William F. Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origins and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration. 1969.
McKinzie, Richard D. The New Deal for Artists. 1973.
O'Connor, Francis V., ed. Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. 1973.