The WPA, created by FDR during the bleakest days of the Great Depression—when over 20 million Americans were unemployed—accomplished a lot. 

Works Progress Administration road project. From the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Wikimedia Commons.

It put 8.5 million Americans to work—many of them unskilled laborers– building 4,000 schools, repairing or building 650,000 miles of roads, 75,000 new bridges, 8,000 parks, 800 new airports, and 125,000 public buildings.  Many of these are still in use today.  It also planted 24 million trees to safeguard topsoil during the Dust Bowl. 

It employed tens of thousands of actors, musicians, writers, painters, muralists, architects and other artists.  The work of these artists brought hope back to those who were recipients of it.  One hundred community art centers were established around the country and thousands of persons found work in museums. 

WPA’s National Youth Administration found part-time jobs for young people.  The WPA arts program cost only $27 million of the total $11 billion dollars budgeted to WPA work programs, and led to the creation of the National Foundation of the Arts.

New Orleans, 1940. “Noon-day concert held by the WPA band at Lafayette Square. Exterior.” Federal Music Project. Wikimedia Commons

Among the 5,300 visual artists employed by WPA was a young painter named Jackson Pollock who worked as a mural assistant.  Also, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner got their start with WPA. 

In 1935 the WPA employed around 350,000 Black Americans or 15% of its total workforce. Black musicians and actors were paid to perform and others made significant contributions to the preservation of Black culture and history.  The Federal Writers’ Project collected interviews and sponsored articles on Black American life in the South including oral histories from former slaves.

African-American women mending books in Forsyth County, NC, as part of a WPA library project. Wikimedia Commons.

Women found work in clerical jobs, gardening, canning, and as librarians and seamstresses.  

The WPA was not without its critics.  But overall, it helped the economy grow (paid workers had money to spend after all) and gave skills and experience to many workers.  

Offering good work, it brought self-respect back to many. Good work does that.  Art does that.

See Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work.

Also see Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

Banner Image: WPA mural, Cohen Building, Washington, D.C. Photo from the Carol A. Highsmith collection in the Library of Congress.

Queries for Contemplation

How readily do we understand artists as workers?  Do artists get sidelined too easily in a culture bent on competition and workaholism and capitalism?

Recommended Reading

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow.  Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” –Bishop John Shelby Spong, author, Rescuing the Bible from FundamentalismLiving in Sin

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7 thoughts on “WPA, Good Work, and Artists”

  1. Avatar

    A further perspective –
    Creativity and vision are the hallmarks of artists. They often start with a blank slate in which to create.
    Visionary tech founders and companies often start off with one, two or a handful of people to create. Vision and risk are leading them to create something new and never done before. Problem solving of all types whether in science and business require insight, creativity and barrier breaking ie not all bridges can be made the same depending on span, distance and other factors. Insulin and post-it notes were derived from God inspired creativity and persistence and then something wonderful happened.
    – BB.

  2. Avatar

    I was told by my mother that my grandfather who immigrated from Poland in 1910 helped to build a stonewall on Bridge Street running east from Mammoth Road in Manchester, NH. On the other side of that stone wall, as long as I have known, was a golf course and still stands today.

  3. Avatar

    Yes! Yes! Today’s two recommended books by Matthew seem to be excellent related to today’s DM theme of the spiritual importance of “soul work”, the deep interrelationship of God’s Spirit of Love~Wisdom~Peace~Justice~Healing~Creativity~Beauty~Joy~Compassion… in our inner and outer lives with one another. As one review says, “Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between our inner and outer work… An important road to social change.”

  4. Avatar

    Let us not forget the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, that employed young men and produced fine work, especially stonework, that still stands today in many places.

    My late husband (much older than me) did not have much education and was at loose ends when the program began, and he loved the work and the camaraderie. The income helped support him and his mother, who was ill.

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