WPA SiteWPA Art in Cleveland
By: Sharon E. Dean, Ph.D.
From the depths of the Great Depression until the early years of World War II, federal programs were created under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that employed millions of workers, including artists. The intention was not only to put the workforce back on the payroll and stimulate a stagnant economy, but also to motivate a weary public’s confidence in the future. As artists engaged in the process of decorating public buildings, making prints, producing posters, and creating sculpture, they also helped unify the country and created a new understanding of American identity.
The 2006 exhibition, "Covering History: Revisiting Federal Art in Cleveland 1933-1943," highlighted federal art in Cleveland as one of the most important assets of our region’s artistic and cultural identity. Between 1936 and 1940, for example, heroic efforts by the Treasury Department and local officials succeeded in placing new public art in nearly 60 post offices across Ohio. The themes chosen for these murals generally were tied to the local community in some way, but underlying them was a homogenous quality. Subject matter included the history of the United States, immigration and settlement, farming, the beginnings of industry, and the history of the U.S. mail system. An optimistic view of the past helped paper over the stressful realities of everyday life during the Depression. Most of the murals were done in a social realist style; a genre that became synonymous with “American Scene” painting. By all accounts, most of the local populations across the region were very satisfied with the new post office murals -- even if they criticized some of the artistic elements.
Prints produced under the aegis of Federal art programs were heavy with social commentary. Yet, they also ignored the nuances, concentrating only on the general human condition. Perhaps artists were permitted to express their social conscience because their scale and context limited their audience to intentional viewers, whereas murals were placed in a public venue. (Figure) Posters developed a standardized graphic appeal so that their messages about public health, safety, housing, and art were easily understood by anyone. Ceramics produced at this time focused either on the well-known Germanic form of storytelling, which gradually became American, or on ideas of cultural and racial tolerance.
The standardized or homogeneous quality of this art genre is the focus of this essay. In the 1950s, sociologist Erving Goffman coined the term covering and wrote about how people present themselves in the public sphere in a way that “tones down” their stigmatized identities and conforms to societal expectations. More recently, author Kenji Yoshino related this idea to the concepts of appearance, activism, affiliation and association. In the context of Federal Art, the term “cover” can be used in a broader sense to suggest not so much the covering up of history, but rather the idea of blurring distinctions between communities and people to emphasize common national ideals of work, progress, and cultural uniformity. Local peoples and their histories were homogenized in an attempt to define a standardized Middle American identity. Artists, lucky enough to obtain work through Federal art programs, had to create art that fit a narrow field of subject matter and a particular style that curiously appealed to both conservative and liberal audiences. As American Scene painting and its social realist style took hold, much of the artistic experimentation by artists so prevalent in the 1920s faded from view until the end of World War II.
This web page offers access to much of the research material gathered for the exhibit, including a resource guide listing addresses of where to find WPA material in Northeast Ohio and a PDF file of the entire exhibit catalog. Our thanks goes to the George Gund Foundation and the Ohio Arts Council for making this web page possible.
For Further Reading on Federal Art Programs.
Adams, Henry Edris Eckhardt: Visionary and Innovator in American Ceramics and
Studio Glass. (Cleveland: Cleveland Artists Foundation, 2006).
Baigell, Matthew The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930’s. (New
York: Praeger Publishers, 1974).
Becker, Heather Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of
Progressive- and WPA-Era Mural in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943.
(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002).
Bright, Alfred L. “Cleveland Karamu Artists,” in: Cleveland as a Center of
Regional American Art. Symposium Presented by the Cleveland Artists
Foundation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, November 13 and 14, 1993.
Bright, Alfred L. “On Fertile Ground: The African American Experience of Artists
Associated with Cleveland’s Karamu House,” in: Yet We Still Rise: African
American Art In Cleveland 1920-1970. (Cleveland: The Cleveland Artists
Brown, Ernestine, ed. Celebrating a Legacy: African-American Artists: WPA-
1970s. (Exhibition Catalog) (Cleveland: Malcolm Brown Gallery, 2001).
Buckner, Cindy Medley Art in a Day’s Work. Exhibit catalog (June 11 – 24,
2000). (Baltimore: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 2000).
Busta, William “Print-a-Month Club in Cleveland,” in: Art All Around the Town.
(Exhibition catalog). (Cleveland: Cleveland Artists Foundation, 2006).
Bustard, Bruce A New Deal for the Arts. (Hong Kong: The National Trust Fund
Board and University of Washington Press, 1997).
Margaret Mary Campbell, Print-A-Month: Cleveland Printmakers, 1932-1936.
University Heights, Ohio: Department of Fine Arts, John Carroll University, 1982.
Cleveland Press “Train Wreck Near Akron is One of Worst in History.” August 1,
DeNoon, Christopher Posters of the WPA 1935-1943. (Los Angeles: The Wheatley
Heller, Nancy and Williams, Julie The Regionalists. 9New York: Watson-Guptill
Index of American Design, at the National Gallery of Art, 9New York: Harry N. Abrams,
Sabine Kretzschmar, “Art for Everyone: Cleveland Printmakers and the WPA: in:
Transformations in Cleveland Art 1796-1946, William H. Robinson and David Steinberg,
eds. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996.
Marling, Karal Ann 1972-1974 (Papers), Research for Federal Art Project. (Cleveland,
Ohio: Special Collections Division, Kelvin Smith Library, Case Western Reserve
Marling, Karal Ann “William M. Milliken and Federal Art Patronage of the
Depression Decade,” in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
December. (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1974).
Marling, Karal Ann Federal Art in Cleveland 1933-1943. (Cleveland:
The Cleveland Public Library, 1974).
Marling, Karal Ann Wall-to-Wall America: a Cultural History of Post-Office
Mural in the Great Depression. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
O’Connor, Francis V. “The Influence of Diego Rivera on the Art of the United
States During the 1930s and After,” in: Diego Rivera. (New York: Founders of
the Society for the Detroit Institute of Arts in association with W.W. Norton and
Park, Marlene and Markowitz, Gerald E. Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and
Public Art in the New Deal. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984).
Sommer, William “Some of My Working Methods,” in: WPA: Art For the
Millions. (New York: New York Graphic Society, 1973).
Steichen, Edward The Family of Man. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955).
Tuttle, Virginia Clayton, Stillinger, Elizabeth, et al. Drawing on America’s Past: Folk
Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design. (National Gallery of Art,
Washington D.C. and The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2003).
Watson, Jane “The Incalculable Record.” Magazine of Art. August. (Washington,
D.C.: The American Federation of Arts, 1939).
Williams, Reba and David Alone in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s-40s by African-
American Artists. (Exhibition Catalog) (New York: American Federation of
Yoshino, Kenji Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights. (New York:
Random House, 2006).
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