Federal Art Project (FAP)

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The Federal Art Project (FAP) was created in August 1935 as one of several cultural programs within the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal. Other agencies were established simultaneously to support American theater, writing, and music. The FAP, under the direction of Holger Cahill from its inception until its closing in 1943, marked an important symbolic change in federal governmental subvention for the visual arts. Before its creation, state art patronage had been funded entirely by the U. S. Treasury and had been governed by the principle of commissioning great art that celebrated the United States and its history since the American Revolution. Murals were commissioned and painted in federal buildings such as courts, customs houses, and post offices. Works of the highest quality, based on European history-painting conventions and values, were placed in all the federal buildings in Washington, D.C., essentially as propagandistic adornments. In contrast, the purpose of the FAP, as part of the WPA, was not to commission the best artists to celebrate the nation-state, but to provide work relief for the thousands of painters, sculptors, and graphic designers who had been thrown out of work by the Depression in the early 1930s.

Holger Cahill, who had been a museum director and specialist in American crafts history before leading the FAP, had a utopian sense of the possible future of his organization and its role in creating a cultural democracy in the United States. Although this vision chimed with the idealism of some radical (left-wing) New Dealers in government, the actual history of the FAP demonstrates the pragmatism of New Deal agencies and the contingent turns and twists in Roosevelt's statecraft during the 1930s.

The FAP operated a number of programs that utilized artists and artworks in different and sometimes contradictory ways. Cahill had overall control but considerable power was held by the managers of specific sections that dealt with recruitment of artists, organization of their work patterns, and determination of their art tasks. The FAP operated nationally, in every state, and was fairly decentralized in management. The majority of artists, however, were based in New York City, and it was their work that attracted the most attention, both from the mass media and from other parts of government disturbed by the leftist profile the arts program began to develop by 1936.

The FAP Easel Division paid artists to paint and sculpt in return for a weekly wage. This employment of artists as wage laborers in some ways was the most radical aspect of the program because it ostensibly treated painters and sculptors as no different from any other kind of worker in American society. Controversies recurred over how and whom to select for the program, and how to assess their work alongside all the other forms of manual labor supported by New Deal agencies. Many well-known artists found work on this scheme in New York, including Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning. Unfortunately, many of the thousands of paintings and sculptures produced were destroyed either directly by the government (who retained control of them) on a variety of grounds—some local officials had reasoned, for instance, that the art works were created only for the duration of the Federal Art Project and therefore should be destroyed when the project ended—or inadvertently, through its lack of care in their storage or maintenance in situ.

The FAP also operated a mural division that commissioned artists to design and install large-scale paintings in a range of federal buildings, including hospitals, prisons, and airports. Some of these artists who produced work as part of this scheme became well known in the 1950s as abstract expressionists, including Arshile Gorky, who painted a mural called Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations (1936) at Newark Airport, and Philip Guston, who worked on a mural called Maintaining America's Skills (1939–1940) at the New York World's Fair WPA pavilion. Many hundreds of murals were placed in buildings across the country in a process that involved the local representatives of prospective host institutions. Relatively few cases of dissatisfaction are recorded. FAP art, on the whole, was subject to relatively few charges of propaganda.

By the late 1930s, however, anticommunist forces in government and in the press attacked the FAP as a left-wing organization, saw that its funding was reduced or suspended, and attempted to intimidate its administrators, who, for the most part, continued to believe that the program was an instrument for radical social change in the country. By that time, however, the radicalism of the New Deal had evaporated, a casualty of the decline in popular support for peacetime Roosevelt, the reemergence of a conservative coalition in Congress, and the end of already heavily strained alliances between the administration and antifascist organizations in the United States.

By the end of 1943 the FAP had been wrapped up, reorganized, and renamed, shorn entirely of the idealism and populism that had motivated its leaders and many of its artists for nearly eight years. Artists who had painted easel pictures, or murals in federal buildings, or organized art education in the FAP's community art center scheme, or contributed drawings to its Index of American Design, had either been sacked or set to work for the military, producing camouflage patterns or illustrations for guide-books for U. S. soldiers about to invade the country's enemies. Only about $35 million was ever spent on FAP activities—less than one percent of federal works funding in the New Deal. In symbolic terms, however, as an intervention into the nation's culture motivated by a history of democratic idealism that long preceded Roosevelt's presidency, the FAP was important, and it continues to figure in debates about the role of artists and the place of art in contemporary American society.



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Harris, Jonathan. Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America. 1995.

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Jonathan Harris

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Federal Art Project (FAP)

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Federal Art Project (FAP)