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Smithsonian opens Depression-era art vault: Paint like it's 1934

March 2, 2009 |  9:38 am

Jungle by Paul Kirtland Mays, 1934

When President Roosevelt unveiled his New Deal programs during the Great Depression, he sought relief for every American, including artists. After all, said Harry Hopkins, the chain-smoking New Yorker FDR put in charge of the program, "Hell, they've got to eat just like other people!"

Between 1934 and 1942, for an average monthly check of $53 ($23 in some Southern states), 10,000 artists worked for government work-relief programs, producing 100,000 easel paintings, 18,000 sculptures, 13,000 prints, 4,000 murals and too many posters and photographs to count.

Now, in the midst of the Great Recession, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (that's the one attached by a courtyard to the National Portrait Gallery) has gone to its vaults and assembled an exhibition of some of the most remarkable pieces to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Program.

"1934: A New Deal for Artists" showcases the art produced in the harsh, hungry winter of the first government program, launched within days of FDR's instruction with what curatorial associate Ann Prentice Wagner called "the most amazing speed."

The images look surprisingly hopeful, and museum officials are betting that a dose of optimism-amid-fear is just what museum patrons need at a time when the global economy is in free fall, whole industries are cratering, and everyone's afraid to even look at their 401(k) statements.

In addition to putting the art on its walls, the American Art Museum is going online big time.

There's an image group on Flickr where you can add your own images of 1934 and view artwork from the 1930s.

Festival, by Paul Celentano, 1934

And there's an educational website, launching March 15, that will allow anyone to create and submit their own videos about the 1930s using paintings, artist memorabilia, historical documents, newsreels, period photographs, music and video in a virtual 3-D movie theater.

And of course the American Art Museum will post a weekly tweet on its Twitter stream.

Enjoy the show. More images below, along with (after the jump) the Smithsonian's backgrounder on the 1934 effort, the first of several Depression-era relief programs for artists.

The exhibition is in Washington until January of 2010, when it starts touring the country. Maybe by then the Recession, like the Depression, will be history.

-- Johanna Neuman

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Lower Manhattan, by Thomas James Delbridge, 1934

Photos: From top, "Jungle," by Paul Kirtland Mays; "Festival" (1934) by Daniel Celentano; and "Lower Manhattan" (1934), by Thomas James Delbridge. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

1934: A New Deal for Artists
Now through January 3, 2010

In 1934, Americans grappled with an economic situation that feels all too familiar today. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration created the Public Works of Art Program — the first federal government program to support the arts nationally.

Federal officials in the 1930s understood how essential art was to sustaining America's spirit. Artists from across the United States who participated in the program, which lasted only six months, from mid-December 1933 to June 1934, were encouraged to depict "the American Scene."

The Public Works of Art Program not only paid artists to embellish public buildings, but also provided them with a sense of pride in serving their country. They painted regional, 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 such as hard work, community and optimism.

"1934: A New Deal for Artists" celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Program by drawing on the Smithsonian American Art Museum's unparalleled collection of vibrant paintings created for the program. The 56 paintings in the exhibition are a lasting visual record of America at a specific moment in time. George Gurney, deputy chief curator, organized the exhibition with Ann Prentice Wagner, curatorial associate.