A Nebraska Farm Scene

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A Nebraska Farm Scene


By: Marguerite Zorach

Date: 1935

Source: Photo by MPI/Getty Images.

About the Artist: Marguerite Zorach (1887–1968) is one of the founders of the modern art movement in the United States. Primarily an oil painter, she is also known for her fine-art embroidered tapestries.


The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the centerpiece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's (1882–1945) New Deal plan to help the United States overcome the Great Depression. During its brief existence, from 1935 to 1943, the WPA spent almost $11 billion and employed about one-third of all unemployed workers. While the majority of its funds were spent on public works construction, the WPA devoted about a quarter of its budget to humanities and arts projects.

The establishment of the WPA by Executive Order 7034 on May 6, 1935, grew out of Roosevelt's strategy for fighting the Great Depression. While President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) viewed public employment that competed with private enterprise as un-American, Roosevelt was willing to try anything that might get people off soup lines and back to work. Accordingly, he incorporated public works into his relief programs. By 1935, Roosevelt had decided to emphasize public works over direct relief. The WPA, approved by Congress through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, constituted the most successful effort at public works ever conducted by the federal government.

The WPA supported the arts and humanities through Federal One, the arts program that included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writers' Project. Federal One reflected Roosevelt's more radical turn in the Second New Deal as well as his willingness to try anything that might help the American people. The controversial plays and paintings produced by WPA artists prompted criticism from Roosevelt's political opponents, especially since many of the works glorified the New Deal.



Seeprimary source image.


While the WPA's cultural activities attracted considerable attention, the vast majority of the agency's efforts were devoted to public works projects. The WPA completed a range of projects, including airports, public buildings, highways, conservation projects, and engineering surveys. WPA workers built 24,000 miles of sidewalks, improved 7,000 miles of paths, constructed 28,000 miles of curb, created or improved 500 water treatment plants, built 1,800 pumping stations, and created over 350 airport landing fields. The WPA is also credited with constructing more than 100,000 new public buildings, such as schools, hospitals, dormitories, and government office buildings.

Despite its productivity, the WPA was a controversial program. In a 1939 public opinion poll, the WPA was simultaneously ranked as Roosevelt's greatest accomplishment and the worst thing that he had done. The WPA did make important contributions to the American economy and culture. Many of the buildings constructed by the WPA still stand and millions of Americans received an education from WPA teachers. Perhaps most important, the billions of dollars spent by the WPA subsidized families of the unemployed and relieved their misery. The agency succeeded in enabling millions of desperate Americans to survive the Great Depression.

In the years after the Great Depression ended, other politicians spoke of creating agencies similar to the WPA. As part of his Great Society in the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) secured the passage of several laws providing job training, federal employment, highway construction, and education. Such continuing programs as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts reflect the legacy of government support for the arts.



McDonald, William F. Federal Relief Administration and the Arts. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969.

Meltzer, Milton. Violins and Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects. New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.

Zorach, Marguerite. Marguerite and William Zorach: Harmonies and Contrasts. Portland, Maine: Portland Museum of Art, 2001.

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A Nebraska Farm Scene

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