Federal One

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Federal One was established with an appropriation of $27 million under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935. It was to provide work relief to unemployed artists and to preserve their skills until they could be absorbed into the private sector. In effect, Federal One sought to occupy the vacuum left by private patronage of the fine arts and mass support for the popular arts due to the austerity of the Depression. Between 1929 and 1933, as the prices paid for paintings declined by two-thirds and magazines dismissed graphic artists because of declining revenues, ten thousand artists became unemployed. Theater workers were equally hard hit as the number of Broadway productions was drastically reduced and the number of employed actors fell by 50 percent. Creative and commercial writers also suffered as the revenues of the publishing industry were halved, and when newspapers sales declined, the employment of many journalists and advertising copywriters was terminated. Musicians, whose job security had already been hurt by the advent of sound in motion pictures, experienced the impact of the Depression as hotels cancelled their small ensembles, symphony orchestras were disbanded, and fewer pupils paid for private music lessons. In 1933, two-thirds of the membership of the American Federation of Musicians was unemployed.

Efforts by professional associations and unions to promote self-help were ineffective, and, with the exception of New York and a handful of state relief agencies, no major initiative was taken by government to provide relevant work for unemployed artists. Some of the New Deal's earliest agencies, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and, in particular, the Civil Works Administration, aided artists, but the effort did not match the need.

Four major arts were organized under the aegis of Federal One: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, and the Federal Writers' Project. Their respective national directors—Holger Cahill, Hallie Flanagan, Nikolai Sokoloff, and Henry Alsberg—headed complex and extensive bureaucracies with a network of state and local offices throughout the United States. However, the directors were not exclusively concerned with the disbursement of funds and the development of projects to provide assistance to unemployed artists. The four directors had clear ideas about the nature of culture and sought to use the federal government to promote them.

Historian Jane De Hart Mathews refers to the New Deal elite's "quest for a cultural democracy"; its aim was to make art more accessible ("art for the millions") by creating new civic institutions for the arts and by transforming attitudes and values about how art was produced and to whom it communicated. Federal One challenged the metropolitan dominance of the arts by taking arts to the people through gallery and company tours, and the Federal Music Project, with its three hundred ensembles, established orchestras in states such as Oklahoma and Utah, where none had existed previously. Federal One also sought to reach wider audiences by making art more comprehensible and relevant to contemporary issues and by incorporating regional and ethnic distinctions in its productions and presentations. The Federal Theatre Project established production companies in forty states, organized sixteen African-American units in eleven cities, and performed plays in languages other than English. Its Living Newspaper productions courted controversy by addressing contemporary issues, such as slum housing, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the plight of American agriculture. It is estimated that the Federal Theatre Project organized some 1,200 productions that played to twenty-five million Americans, 65 percent of whom were attending the theater for the first time.

Federal One sought to stimulate involvement as well as appreciation. The Federal Art Project provided free art classes for sixty thousand people each month, while the Federal Music Project employed six thousand music teachers who organized programs in schools, parks, and hospitals, developing the music skills of some fourteen million pupils. The vision of Federal One was extremely ambitious. It sought to sponsor a cultural renaissance in America through a mass movement. The aim was to integrate the artist into society and to make the arts integral to everyday life.

Despite frequent criticisms of some American failings, the projects were self-consciously and assertively nationalistic in both their themes and their forms; one WPA poster declared, "Out of the spirit of a people arises its art." The nationalism of Federal One is most evident in the Federal Writers' Project's American Guide series, a collection of 378 books and pamphlets describing all of America's states, principal cities, and highways. Federal One sought to orient Americans to their history, as well as to their geography. The arts projects worked to connect contemporary life with American traditions. The Federal Writers' Project, for example, employed writers to make inventories of state and local archives and to collect the testimony of exslaves; a Folklore Studies Division launched oral history projects to preserve American folklore and humor. The Federal Art Project's Index of American Design recorded the history of the decorative arts from early settlement to 1890, while the Federal Writers' Project compiled an index of American composers that catalogued about seven thousand compositions by 2,200 composers. In addition, a joint committee on folk arts organized recordings of the songs and music of Latino Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, and Cajuns, as well as music from the Appalachian region. These were not antiquarian endeavors; the sponsors of these projects believed that they were accumulating repositories of American art and expression that would inspire contemporary musicians, artists, and writers. Such an emphatic nationalism has led some cultural historians to claim that Federal One sought to distract Americans from the crisis of the Depression by affirming the United States and by imposing a false, purposeful consensus upon America's history and the character of its people. However, if a cultural hegemony to buttress the liberal economic and social programs of the New Deal was ever a goal, it was never attained.

Initiatives in 1938 to make Federal One a permanent agency met with failure. A broad range of interests was hostile to the organization. Some politicians were concerned about waste and inefficiency and questioned the relevance of the subsidization of culture in a period of mass unemployment. Republican politicians, in particular, claimed that the cultural projects were a propaganda arm of the Democratic Party. Federal One was also associated with radicalism and, during its investigations in 1938 and 1939, the House Committee on Un-American Activities claimed that the projects had been infiltrated by Communists. Even the arts "establishment" did not favor making Federal One permanent because of the inconsistent quality of the work it produced.

In 1939, following an investigation by the House Committee on Appropriations, the Federal Theatre Project was terminated and Federal One was abolished. The remaining projects were transferred to the supervision of the states with the expectation that the states would contribute 25 percent of their costs and terminate the contracts of workers who had served for eighteen months. Deprived of central direction, the remaining arts projects began to lose their creative dynamism, and after 1940 project workers were transferred to the war preparedness campaign. However, it is doubtful that, even at its height, Federal One came close to challenging the metropolitan bias of American cultural production or to integrating the artist securely in American life. Perhaps Federal One will be best remembered by those who were assisted by the projects during the Depression and who established international reputations in the postwar period: artist Jackson Pollock, stage and screen director Elia Kazan, actor Burt Lancaster, and writers Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and Arthur Miller, to name but a few.



Alexander, Charles C. Here the Country Lies: Nationalism and the Arts in Twentieth Century America. 1980.

Billington, Ray Allen. "Government and the Arts: The W.P.A. Experience." American Quarterly 13 (1961): 467–479.

Bindas, Kenneth J. All of This Music Belongs to the Nation: The WPA's Federal Music Project and American Society. 1996.

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

Mathews, Jane De Hart. "Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy." Journal of American History 62 (1975): 316–339.

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.

Meltzer, Milton. Violins and Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects. 1976.

O'Connor, John, and Lorraine Brown, eds. The Federal Theatre Project: "Free, Adult, Uncensored." 1980.

Penkower, Monte N. The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts. 1977.

Stuart Kidd

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Federal One

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Federal One