by Margaret Bing
Bienes Center for the Literary Arts

"The Federal Arts Program was first suggested to President Franklin Roosevelt by George Biddle, who at one time, studied under the renown Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. In a letter to Roosevelt, Biddle suggested that a group of muralists work on the new Justice Department Building in Washington, D.C. Biddle's suggestion helped develop the Public Works of Art Project, known more popularly during the depression era as the WPA." (source)

The WPA commonly refers to the many agencies established by the Federal Government in the 1930s during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Brought into being on May 6, 1935, as an independent agency funded directly by Congress, the Works Progress Administration was the Federal Government’s most ambitious undertaking yet to provide employment for the jobless.

Created to replace earlier attempts to bring the Depression under control with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the purpose of the Works Progress Administration was to provide jobs for the unemployed who were able to work. It was not a program for the aged, handicapped or other unemployables, all of whom would be helped by state and local governments, but rather it provided assistance to people who simply could not find a job. Sometimes called a “make work” program, the WPA eventually employed approximately one-third of the nation’s 10,000,000 unemployed, paying them about $50.00 a month.

In the early 1930s, most of the work provided by both the FERA, PWA and CWA was in the construction industries. Except for local grants, unemployed office workers, teachers and professors, artists, performers, and musicians were largely ignored. There were exceptions, however. For example, in 1933 a grant given by the CWA to the Treasury Department became the Public Works of Art Project. It gave work to over 3,600 artists in the 48 states to create murals and sculptures for public buildings. The program emphasized the production of works of art rather than art education, and it was the first art project ever sponsored by the Federal Government. It ended in 1934 when the CWA was terminated, but it set the stage for the later establishment of the WPA’s art, music, theater, and writers’ projects.

The Works Progress Administration of 1935 continued the work of building and improving a wide variety of public facilities. It differed, however, from the previous programs by also addressing the employment needs of non-construction workers. For example, it assisted communities in expanding educational, library, health, and related community projects. Professional and white collar workers, on the other hand, found employment with “Federal One.” Federal Project No. 1 of the Works Progress Administration was developed to give artistic and professional work to the unemployed who qualified. It consisted of the Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Music Project (FMP), Federal Theatre Project (FTP), the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), and the Historical Records Survey (HRS).

Federal One Projects


With the establishment of the WPA in 1935, the Federal Art Project (FAP) began as a part of Federal One with Holger Cahill as its director. By March of 1936, regional field offices were established throughout the country employing as many as 6,000 people. Fifty percent of the FAP workers were directly engaged in creating works of art, while 10 to 25 percent worked in art education; the rest worked in art research. By 1938, 42,000 easel paintings and 1,100 murals in public buildings were commissioned. Large numbers of sculptures, silk-screen prints, posters, and other graphic works were also made, and the FAP frequently worked in cooperation with the Federal Writers’ Project to design covers and illustrations for its publications.

One of the FAP’s major activities, the Index of American Design helped popularize American folk art by documenting the country’s “usable past” in a project that produced 20,000 photographic records of American art, painting, sculpture, handicraft, and folk art. Art education was promoted through the establishment of hundreds of community art centers that served tens of thousands and sponsored hundreds of individual and group exhibitions. Many of the art centers are still functioning today.

The Federal Art Project was so popular with communities that it had no trouble in securing the 25 percent local funding required by the Reorganization Act of 1939. In fact, until it was dissolved in 1943 it continued to produce World War II armed services posters and propaganda art.


The Federal Music Project (FMP) was also a part of Federal One. Its purpose was to employ, retrain, and rehabilitate unemployed musicians. The earlier FERA and CWA were not successful in establishing effective programs for musicians, so the Federal Music Project enjoyed immediate acceptance by an industry hard hit by the Depression. Music and entertainment became luxuries as attendance at concerts and dances declined. At the same time, musicians lost work due to reasons as diverse as school budget reductions and innovations in theater sound equipment technology. As a result, as many as two-thirds of all professional musicians in the U.S. were unemployed.

Organized into educational and performing units, the Federal Music Project hired teachers to direct choruses, bands and orchestras, conduct classes in both vocal and instrumental music, and direct amateur community productions and group sings. The performing units formed symphonies, orchestras, concert bands, and ensembles that gave performances in schools, community centers, settlement houses, orphanages, prisons, hospitals, public parks, and rented halls in urban and rural areas. Several states, including Florida, collected and recorded folk music, while other units provided copying, research, and other services for the performing units. Approximately 15,000 musicians were employed during the FMP’s peak in 1936, and 10,000 musicians were still working at the beginning of World War II.


The most controversial of all the projects, the Federal Theatre Project, also a component of Federal One, had Hallie Flanagan as its director. She envisioned creating a national audience by establishing theaters in small towns and cities and by reinvigorating those of the larger urban areas. The project that eventually emerged, however, was far from the vision.

Divided into regions with regional supervisors, from the beginning there was constant conflict between the commercial theater advocates and the independent non-profit theater supporters. Hard hit by both the Depression and the rise of the cinema, the commercial theater had been trying unsuccessfully to gain government backing for a financially devastated Broadway as early as 1933, but using Federal monies to back private businesses was clearly unconstitutional.

Disagreements with the many unions that already held a firm grip on the commercial theater continually caused difficulties and made the process of recruiting workers from the relief rolls extremely difficult. Non-relief quotas were often well over the limit and the unions constantly pushed for wages that were higher than allowed.

In New York the initial five units, the Living Newspaper, the Popular Price Theatre, the Experimental Theatre, the Negro Theatre and the Tryout Theatre were soon joined by a one-act play unit, a classical repertory unit, a poetic drama unit, a children’s unit, a Negro Youth theater, a dance theater, the Theater for the Blind, a marionette theater, a Yiddish vaudeville unit, a German unit, an Anglo-Jewish theater, and a Radio Division. Some units were more successful than others and some did not continue throughout the project. Of these, the Living Newspaper sponsored by the New York Newspaper Guild, caused the most controversy with its contemporary social and economic themes.

There was an attempt at a national exchange of plays, directors, and ideas, with some plays opening simultaneously across the country in a effort to build national recognition for the project. At the same time, local authors were encouraged to produce plays on local themes and social issues. But it was the emphasis on social themes that also helped cause the downfall of the project. The Theatre Project’s survival clearly became a political issue when it was scrutinized by the House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, under the Chairmanship of Martin Dies.

Originally designed to offer “free, adult, uncensored theatre,” the FTP was able to pump new life into the dying theaters of the large cities, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, fulfilling one aim of the project, but the goal of integrating theater into the smaller cities of America through the development of independent, community, and experimental groups was never realized. Under very controversial circumstances, the Federal Theatre Project was ended on June 30, 1939 by an act of Congress.


Begun under the leadership of Henry A. Alsberg, the Federal Writers’ Project was also part of Federal One. It was designed to put not only professional writers and newspapermen to work, but lawyers, teachers, librarians, ministers, and other white collar workers who were on relief.

The main goal of the FWP was to compile tour guides to the 48 states and the territories of Alaska and Puerto Rico. Travel by automobile was expanding rapidly and the last travel guide to the United States was published by Baedeker in 1914. A team of national administrators and editors was set up in Washington, while each state was assigned a State Director. Teams of workers toured every corner of the states collecting information. The field worker, equipped with instructions and field report forms, would travel from town to town interviewing and gathering information. The reports were written up and edited by the area and state editors before they were sent to Washington for the final editing and approval. Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.

A vast array of articles, pamphlets, books, and monographs were published by the FWP on all aspects of American life, including history, folklore, nature studies, children’s educational materials, and the first ethnic studies to reach the general public. No one knows exactly how many publications bear the imprint of the Federal Writers’ Project or Writers’ Program, but one statistic claims that in seven years, at the cost of $27,189,370.00, seven twelve-foot bookcases of printed materials were authored, including 378 commercially published books.

With the Reorganization Act of 1939, Alsberg resigned and John D. Newsome became the National Director. The Washington office still oversaw the projects, but the states were now responsible for providing 25 percent sponsorship so that publications often took on a more regional flavor. After Pearl Harbor, the program became the Writers’ Unit of the War Services Division of WPA, producing recreational guides for servicemen.


With the advent of Federal One, the Historical Records Survey was created as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Its mission was to conduct a national records survey. In 1936, Luther Evans was appointed director and the agency became an independent section of Federal One.

Unemployed clerks, teachers, writers, librarians and archivists were used to catalog, analyze, and compile inventories of state and county records, which also included a historic and legal description of the county and the value of its records. Other state materials included manuscript collections and church archives. Inventories of early American imprints were supervised by the bibliographer Douglas McMurtrie, while other projects included supplements to the union list of newspapers, and surveys of portraits in public buildings. Bibliographies of American history and literature were prepared as well as an historical index of American musicians, an atlas of congressional roll call votes, list and index of unnumbered executive orders, and a collation of collections of presidential papers and messages. Microfilming projects were initiated across the country and a survey of Federal agencies in each state was undertaken.

The HRS was financially the most efficient of all the Federal One programs and averaged 2,500 employees a month with a high in 1938 of 6,000 employed at an average salary of $73.00 per month. With the end of Federal One in August, 1939, Luther Evans resigned and the new director, Sargent Child tried to complete all the survey projects already underway. The Historical Records Survey subsequently became a part of the Community Service Program, and by 1941 the central staff was reduced to only 12 employees.


In spite of the fact that the Works Progress Administration was generally considered to have been a success, it was not without its political detractors. Instead of giving jobs to the most qualified, state and local officials often handed out jobs as rewards for political favors. Moreover, conservatives disliked the themes of social protest and economic inequity used in many of the works devised by the Federal Theatre and Federal Writers’ Projects; businessmen charged that it competed unfairly with private industry; and organized labor complained that it undercut prevailing wages. The Reorganization Act of 1939 succeeded in eliminating the Federal Theatre Project, which was often labeled communist, as well as curtailing the remaining WPA projects. Now named the Work Projects Administration, the WPA was made a part of the Federal Works Agency. It was no longer funded separately by Congress but became a part of overall government operations. Construction once again became the major focus and the surviving Federal One projects were required to find sponsorship outside the Federal Government in order to continue their programs.

With the onset of World War II, the WPA began to focus on issues related to national defense, and by 1941 the entire effort shifted to war preparation. But as jobs in the private sector increased, even those WPA projects were reduced. Finally all of the agencies were eliminated in July 1943, thus bringing to a close a unique period in American history.

The legacy left by the New Deal agencies of the WPA, especially Federal One, lives on through the detailed documents it so meticulously compiled and authored. They are snapshots frozen in time that richly chronicle life in America as it was just prior to the start of World War II.






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