The Legacy of Public Art: Storied Walls

Although some WPA murals have vanished over the years, many remain — bold, broad-shouldered, and confident in America’s future. Contemporary artists continue that legacy.

Aaron Douglas: Commissioned in 1934, Aaron Douglas painted Aspects of Negro Life, a panel series of four murals — including From Slavery to Reconstruction, shown here — which depicted the history of Black people in America, from slavery to the 1930s. (Public Works of Art Project, courtesy NYPL)

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As long as there have been walls, people have been painting on them. Among the oldest forms of public art, murals and frescoes have adorned the walls and ceilings of palaces, churches, public buildings, and private dwellings in Europe for centuries. America’s love affair with murals began much later — during the Great Depression — and continues to this day.

The stock market crashed in October 1929. By 1933, nearly half of the banks in the country had failed, and nearly 13 million Americans — roughly 25 percent of the nation’s total work force — were unemployed. Even those lucky enough to have kept their jobs saw their incomes drop by as much as 40 percent. When Americans had to choose between putting food on the table or art on the walls, the choice was clear. With little private patronage and a collapsed art market, artists struggled to make a living.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the worst economic crisis in American history by promising a “new deal for the American people.” Beginning in 1933, Roosevelt initiated a series of New Deal programs with the goal of getting the country out of the Depression.

Among the dozens of federal agencies created for Roosevelt’s New Deal, the largest and most ambitious was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), introduced in 1935 to provide jobs and income to the ever-growing population of the unemployed. The WPA put roughly 8.5 million skilled and unskilled Americans to work building parks, government and public buildings, roads, schools, airports, and other public structures. At the height of the Great Depression, American morale was at an all-time low. FDR understood that unemployed workers didn’t want handouts; they wanted jobs doing useful work that provided a living wage and personal dignity.

John Steuart Curry: Commissioned to embellish the Department of Justice building, John Steuart Curry created two murals, including Justice of the Plains: The Movement Westward, representing a heroic outlook on the hardships of the journey west, the dangers of the unknown, and the improvisation of justice to meet the needs of 19th-century settlers. (Library of Congress)

Later the same year, Roosevelt created the Federal Art Project (FAP) — the largest of four art programs under the aegis of the WPA — to provide federally funded jobs for thousands of struggling photographers, sculptors, painters, and illustrators. FDR saw the arts and access to them as fundamental to American life and democracy, and he believed they fostered resilience and pride in American culture and history. The FAP was the first federal government program ever to support the arts nationally. Before the New Deal, artists relied on private patronage and the philanthropy of wealthy and elite institutions. Not only did the government art projects rescue artists from poverty and despair, but government-sponsored art programs also served a larger purpose — to give all Americans access to art and culture.

At its peak in 1936, the FAP employed more than 5,000 artists. By the time it was dissolved in 1943, FAP artists had produced more than 100,000 easel paintings, nearly 300,000 fine prints, about 18,000 sculptures, innumerable posters, and more than 2,500 murals that can still be seen in public  buildings throughout the country. When federal support of the program was questioned, Harry Hopkins, director of the WPA, responded to critics by saying, “Hell! They’ve got to eat, just like other people.”

Maynard Dixon: Noted illustrator, painter, and muralist Maynard Dixon painted Themes of the Bureau of Indian Affairs: Indian and Teacher in 1939. Best known for his iconic depictions of the American West, Dixon focused his work on portraying the people and scenes of the West honestly and without embellishment. (Library of Congress)

About seven percent of the massive ($11.4 billion) WPA budget went to federal arts and history projects, which provided artists a living wage, according to Ann Prentice Wagner, who co-curated the 2009 Smithsonian exhibition A New Deal for Artists. “People who were master artists might make as much as 45 dollars a week,” she says, adding that “this was at a time when laborers like longshoremen might be making 10 cents an hour or maybe even a dollar or two a day.”

George Biddle: Muralist and portrait painter George Biddle — shown working on the five-panel fresco Society Freed through Justice in 1936 — was a friend of FDR and instrumental in the development of federal arts programs during the Depression. (Archives of American Art)

However, things didn’t always run smoothly. The New Deal arts projects were under siege almost from the moment they were announced. “During the seven and a half years that I ran that project, it was attacked by everybody under the sun,” said Holger Cahill, who served as national director of the Federal Arts Program for its entire existence. Opponents slammed the arts initiatives as “Soviet propaganda” and handouts for lazy artists, denouncing the FAP for subsidizing “bad art.”

The 1930s was a decade of social and political upheaval, and many Americans felt they had little in common. Murals — in post offices, schools, hospitals, train stations, and municipal buildings — brought art to working-class men and women around the nation, assuring them of a shared identity and presenting a version of American culture that everyone could rally behind. For Roosevelt, this was the kind of democracy he was keen on fostering.

“One of the main goals of the Federal Arts Project was to stimulate a relationship between ordinary Americans and art, to remove the genteel or high-class connotations of ‘art,’” says Victoria Grieve, a professor of history at Utah State University and author of The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture. “To that end, FAP artists often incorporated symbols of a ­national identity that emphasized the common people. Artists were embedded in local communities, so they typically incorporated the history and subjects at hand.”

There were no government-mandated requirements about the subject of the art or its style — only nudes or overt political propaganda were prohibited. However, artists who participated in the program were encouraged to depict “the American scene” and were allowed to interpret this idea freely. Artists painted recognizable subjects — ranging from portraits to cityscapes and images of city life to landscapes and depictions of rural life — that reminded the public of quintessential American values, like hard work, community, and optimism.

Working together: A team of 25 muralists (4 women and 21 men) was selected in 1933 to decorate the interior of Coit Tower, which sits atop San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. Completed in 1934, 18 fresco murals — including City Life by Victor Arnautoff — 5 oil-painted canvas murals, and 4 fresco secco murals were installed on the first and second floors. The 27 murals are a time capsule of life in California during the 1930s. (Wikimedia Commons)

The FAP tended to favor a more realist style, including American Regionalism, rather than abstract art. Regionalist style was at its height from 1930 to 1935, and the best-known artists were Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, who advocated an art that more closely reflected the rural lives and concerns of ordinary working people across the country. Regionalists celebrated the American heartland, its people, and their way of life, making their work popular among a broad range of audiences.

Hard-working ordinary people, immigrants, and people of color were prominently represented in the murals. “There was a cultural celebration of the ‘common man’ in the 1930s,” says Grieve. “Big, chiseled, muscular men and women were intended to embody the nation and its forward movement. Pioneers and farmers were typically depicted as taming the wilderness or feeding the nation. Common people — unlike the bankers and politicians blamed for causing the Great Depression — were seen as the engines of progress in 1930s America.”

WPA artists were recruited through newspaper advertisements placed around the country. To qualify, they had to demonstrate financial need and provide a portfolio of their work. This and the FAP’s nondiscrimination clause meant that it attracted and hired not just white men but women and people of color who faced barriers in hiring, visibility, and equal treatment in the art world. The WPA provided many with unprecedented access to artmaking and exhibition ­opportunities.

Marion Greenwood: In 1940, the FAP hired artist Marion Greenwood to paint frescoes for the Red Hook Housing project in Brooklyn; she is shown above working on Planned Community Life, one of three sections of the mural Blueprint for Living. Regarded as a Social Realist artist, Greenwood traveled the world and portrayed the working class in underdeveloped locations. (Archives of American Art)

In 1934, the WPA commissioned Aaron Douglas — widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished and influential visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance — to paint Aspects of Negro Life, a four-panel mural for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) depicting the history of Blacks in America, from slavery to the Great Migration in the 1930s. Douglas’s work inspired a 23-year-old Jacob Lawrence to create his now-acclaimed Migration Series, most of which was painted while he was living in a Harlem loft. In 1942, he broke a racial barrier by becoming the first African-American artist whose work was acquired by The Museum of Modern Art.

As part of its mission to provide art to public buildings, the FAP commissioned murals for public housing projects. American Social Realist artist Marion Greenwood was hired by FAP to paint frescoes for the Red Hook government housing project in Brooklyn. This project, titled Blueprint for Living, was meant for low-income citizens and expressed hope for a more harmonious future.

“There was a real transformation in the fundamental economic and social understanding of the value of art,” says Jody Patterson, Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Chair of Art History at The Ohio State University. “It was no longer a luxury good but an essential part of what constituted a democracy.” Patterson continues: “Artists were given studio spaces, materials, and a living wage, but also … their art was put out into public spaces, and this gave them an audience.”

Ben Shahn: From 1940 to 1942, Ben Shahn executed the multi-paneled mural The Meaning of Social Security for the main corridor of the new Federal Security Buildings in Washington, D.C. Shahn’s mural captures the ambitions of the New Deal programs and serves as an example of government efforts to extend patronage to the arts in the 1930s. (Library of Congress)

Within the FAP, an artist could work on any number of divisions — murals, easel painting, sculpture, among others. Many artists, including Willem de Kooning, Ben Shahn, John Steuart Curry, Arshile Gorky, Grant Wood, Lee Krasner, and Thomas Hart Benton, worked in the mural division. Willem de Kooning, who would become an acclaimed abstract expressionist and founder of the New York School, said that “being part of FAP allowed me to quit my day job as house painter and a shoe-store window dresser to concentrate on making art.”

Before FAP, art had been generated in a handful of cities, like New York and Los Angeles. “The Federal Arts Project took on the whole nation as part of the project,” says Patterson. As a result, murals covered the walls of public buildings in small towns across the country.

“The generation that was saved by that [WPA] funding turned out to be the greatest and most acclaimed in the history of American art,” says Ann Prentice Wagner. In addition to muralists and painters, New Deal–sponsored photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans chronicled the lives of desperately poor farm workers. Gordon Parks documented the bare-bones reality of Washington, D.C.’s Black working class. In music, there was composer Aaron Copland’s Quiet City (and later, Fanfare for the Common Man). In theater, Orson Welles staged Macbeth with an all-Black cast. Writers Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston worked for the WPA. So did Studs Terkel.

It is difficult to imagine that any WPA-like arts program could be revived nationwide — the ideological and cultural divides we face today seem to be too great. But, to Ann Prentice Wagner, the path forward is clear: “How do we know what creative minds could be working on right now unless we give them a chance?”

Irene Rawlings has written for Global Traveler, AFAR, O, the Oprah Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and is the author of four books, including Sisters on the Fly.

Bringing Life to Public Spaces

Benefits of Mural Art

Cities and towns across the United States are seeing the cultural, social, and economic value of investing in public art. Most of the art tends to be in mural form because the “canvas” — walls of buildings and other urban structures — already exists, and paint and brushes are relatively cheap. The benefits of murals aren’t superficial:

Beautify public spaces: Murals add color and vibrancy to otherwise dull or neglected, even abandoned, areas of a city — turning something unsightly into something appealing.

Create a sense of community: Mural arts creates what Mitchell Reardon, director of urban planning at the urban planning and design consultancy Happy Cities, calls “community fingerprints” — spaces that make people feel represented, foster community ties, and give people a sense of ownership and belonging in their neighborhoods.”

Inspire change: Public art can also inspire change by addressing and calling attention to a challenge a city needs to solve, like transportation issues, equality issues, and diversity. “It advocates for social issues and empowers local voices,” says Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Make public spaces feel safer: Bright, colorful murals on public pathways, under-street walkways, and alleyways make otherwise dark areas more welcoming and visible.

Attract tourism: Serious art aficionados will travel great distances to see murals by famous artists or to take themed tours of a city’s murals. ArtWorks Cincinnati offers self-guided tours of the city’s history, like the popular walking tours of African American murals or trolley tours during Black History Month. Many cities credit public murals for the economic development that naturally follows from artist studio tours, gallery exhibitions, and restaurant and microbrewery patronage.

PHILADELPHIA: “Mural art significantly enhances Philadelphia by culturally enriching its public spaces, promoting community pride and shared identity,” says Jane Golden, founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nation’s largest public art program. Dubbed “The Mural Capital of the World,” Philadelphia has more than 4,000 murals — uniting artists and
community to create works of art that celebrate both common history and diversity. The organization’s slogan is “Beautify. Inspire. Empower.” “Art ignites change,” she says. “It means using the visual and participatory notion of mural-making to advocate for social issues and empower local voices, particularity from marginalized communities.”

How to Turn Anything into Something Else, 2011, (City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Miss Rockaway Armada)

CINCINNATI: With more than 300 street murals in the city, Cincinnati won USA Today’s Readers’ Choice Award for Best City for Street Art. “Being the No. 1 city for street art is a testament to ArtWorks’ long-standing commitment to prioritizing community-based partnerships, listening to community voices, hiring local artists, celebrating heritage, and elevating civic pride,” says Colleen Houston, CEO and artistic director of ArtWorks, a greater Cincinnati nonprofit that creates community based public art. “Since its founding in 1996, ArtWorks has employed more than 4,000 young people (ages 14-21) who are mentored by 3,000 local artists. In a parallel approach to the WPA, we provide a living wage,” says Houston.

Armstrong, 2016, by Eduardo Kobra (Photo by J. Miles Wolf)
Cincinnati Toy Heritage, 2016, by Jonathan Queen (Photo by J. Miles Wolf)

DENVER: There’s also an economic case for supporting street art — tourism. “According to a recent study from the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, nonprofit arts and culture organizations like the River North Art District (RiNo) generated a record-breaking $2.6 billion in economic activity in Metro Denver in 2022,” says Alye Sharp, Executive Director, Programs & Partnerships, at the RiNo Art District in Denver. RiNo is essentially an open-air gallery with more than 200 murals. This encourages people to walk and brings them into contact with galleries, bars, and restaurants. The creative culture and energy of an arts district like RiNo attracts new businesses, and that, in turn, attracts the people who want to live here.

Courtesy RiNo Arts District PT

This article is featured in the July/August 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. If you ever visit Dallas, Texas be sure to make time to visit the State Fair of Texas buildings many of which were constructed with WPA funds and adorned with WPA murals. One building I remember as the Hall of State building was my favorite to peruse as a child. The murals are a real treasure even today. Much of the fairgrounds are open year round. Call ahead for museum hours so you won’t be rushed to view the sights.


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