Erika Doss (Professor, Department of American Studies, University of Notre Dame)
March 7, 2023
From 1933 to 1945, the federal government responded to the crisis of the Great Depression with the New Deal: political measures, economic programs, and cultural projects aimed at providing relief, recovery, and reform. The government also became the major patron of American art, supplying work relief for artists through projects like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Women artists, working class artists, and artists of color gained unprecedented opportunities and public visibility during the New Deal as the artistic playing field expanded to a much broader range of American art styles, exhibition spaces, and audiences.
Government arts patronage hinged on rebuilding national unity and restoring confidence in capitalism and democracy, both destabilized during the Great Depression. While New Deal art varied in style and subject, much of it aimed to reaffirm American values of hard work, perseverance, individualism, and community. In contrast with arts patronage in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, New Deal art specifically addressed America’s cultural pluralism, its multiple regional and local identities. Today, thousands of paintings, prints, posters, sculptures, and post office murals produced during the New Deal still exist. Focusing on these primary sources, this webinar considers how American art made relief, recovery, and reform a national project during the Great Depression.