When Uncle Sam Played Patron Of The Arts: Memoirs Of A Wpa Painter

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When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in March, 1933, he stepped into the pit of a fearful depression: about fifteen million Americans were out of work. Among them were some ten thousand artists. And the artists were not forgotten in the sweeping workrelief measures soon launched by the New Deal under the direction of Harry Hopkins—"They have to eat just like other people, ” Hopkins remarked dryly. Thousands of them were put to work under the aegis of various government agencies, starting with the Treasury Department, which had long been concerned with the “embellishment” of public buildings. But the biggest and best-known program was the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. This was an unprecedented venture in government patronage of the arts. Something like four hundred thousand easel paintings, murals, prints, posters, and renderings were produced by WPA artists during the eight years of the project ‘s existence, virtually free of government pressure to control subject matter, interpretation, or style. The administration ‘s support of art was first suggested by George Biddle, himself an artist and a close acquaintance of F.D.R. ‘s. One member of Biddle ‘s circle who later became active as a New Deal muralist was Edward Laning, a young artist on whom the Depression at first had little impact, since his family owned oil wells. Recently, looking back, he composed a lively account of his experiences as an artist under government patronage; it will be one contribution to The New Deal Art Project: An Anthology of Memoirs , edited by Dr. Francis V. O ’Connor, to be published next year by the Smithsonian Institution Press. As an introduction to a portfolio of New Deal murals beginning on page 45 of this issue, A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents an excerpt from Mr. Laning ‘s memoir. Dr. O ‘Connor, the leading authority on the entire subject, has assisted us in choosing our sampler of New Deal art; he also photographed some of the paintings for us. —The Editors

Sometime in 1934 I went broke like nearly everybody else. The family oil wells went dry, and word came from home, “That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.” I borrowed money from friends who still had some (and repaid them, for the most part, with paintings). My landlord kindly waived my rent for a number of months. In the meantime the plight of all artists was growing desperate. A demonstration was held in front of the Whitney Museum on Eighth Street, complete with placards and chants and shouted imprecations, and was dispersed by the police. My friend Karl Free, a curator of the Whitney and one of the most brilliant artists of the time, leaned out of an upper window of the beleaguered museum and called to many of the demonstrators below, “I know you , So-and-So, and you , Such-and-Such,” implying that he meant to blacklist them forever. Karl was of German extraction and had decided Nazi sympathies—during the first year of the Second World War he committed suicide.

In October, 1934, the Section of Painting and Sculpture was established under the Treasury Department, and when the commissions to decorate the Justice Department and Post Office buildings were awarded, most of the original Biddle gang were assigned their allotted spaces—except me. George called me to say that it was felt that I was too young. But he went on to assure me that other spaces in the Post Office Building were to be allocated on the basis of a competition and that it was his understanding that if I would take part in this competition, I could be sure of an award. I was crushed at first, but I allowed myself to trust him. I confess that my conscience was untroubled by his suggestion that the competition would be rigged in my favor. Perhaps my baroque aesthetic made these tergiversations seem comprehensible.

I made a great effort with these sketches for the Post Office (my preliminary drawings for two spaces in the Post Office rotunda are in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum), but when the judgment was announced, I received no award. George called again to explain that one of the judges, Eugene Speicher, had felt that my color sketches lacked “surface quality.” (This meant simply that I did not display the old Woodstock fuzz, that blur as of carpet sweepings which was the hallmark of Speicher and McFee, the leaders of the provincial Woodstock school.)

A member of the National Council on the Arts and Government said to me in the summer of 1968 that the prospects for public support of art seem brighter today than in the thirties because there is now a more widespread public interest and appetite, whereas the government sponsorship of the thirties rested solely on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s love of art. I doubt the validity of either term of this proposition. I don’t believe either of the Roosevelts cared about art at all. What is true is, first, that they were great humanitarians and, second, that they were loyal to their friends. George Biddie was an aristocrat who had gone to school with Roosevelt. He could walk into the White House and be sure of a gracious personal reception.