The history and legacy of the New Deal arts program is intertwined with the Mexican muralist movement. Its role in the evolution of public art helped define the Americana voice and opened the possibility for an ever-evolving American art scene. The practice of painting murals was present in the USA before FDRs New Deal. The National Society of Mural Painters (NSMP) was founded in 1895 “to advance the standards of mural decoration in America: promote cooperations among mural painters; represent the interests of mural painters in public issues; and to hold exhibitions and encourage sound education in mural decoration.” While their objectives contributed to those of the WPA, there were important distinctions between them considering patronage, location, and purpose. 

Prior to the New Deal, murals were themed with romantic allegories or heroic epics; conservative themes were agreed to add dignity to the destined locations. Artists were limited by direction by architects and the opportunities to paint on their projects needed approval by a Prix de Rome, which controlled the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects and the American arts academy in Rome.

Architects who used murals as embellishments to their designs worked for an elite clientele who were prone to disconnect from the needs of the everyman. The effort wasn’t to educate, but rather to entertain the viewer. Artists weren’t often commissioned to create murals that were relevant or relatable to the general public; much less allow for the global changes in creative expression brought on by increased access to other cultures and discoveries in fields of science, psychology, and philosophy. The wider visions of artists conflicted with the increasingly pragmatic designs of domestic architecture and further diminished their opportunities.

Following the first world war, the world celebrated a collective elation of survival and possibility. However, artist employment was still at the whims of an architectural patronage system. The Great Depression diminished options when the elites could no longer spend on luxuries. Welfare became relief to a diminishing employability.

For Americans, one of the most visible cried for change came from the Mexican Revolution. The media lauded its social successes, especially its ideas for elevating the masses out of illiteracy by using public art projects as educational tools. Diego Rivera, one of the most influential Mexican Muralist, believed in order to capture the public’s interest with images on walls, they must be  painted “ in strong but simple terms, a simple message of universal interest. Paintings about the people, for the people.”

His ideas influenced several key figures, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Biddle, and Holger Cahill. FDR also saw public education as a means of elevating Americans out of the depression and combined this with a belief that meaningful work would do more for the pride of Americans than welfare. George Biddle believed that social and artistic revolutions in America were inspiring American artists with an awareness of the transitions impacting the country and its communities; it motivated their artistic expressions. Holger Cahill saw integrating the arts with the daily life of the community as a self-perpetuating market for artists: employing the best artists would provide the public with the sense of excellence possible in American Arts; teaching art formally and recreationally would expand the masses knowledge and interest in the arts; using applied arts to express current social issues in communities would give voices to the American experience.

Inspired by Mexican recovery initiatives, FDR hired artists as wage labourers to visualize the American experience and make it accessible to the masses. Through a series of infrastructure initiatives FDR launched The New Deal in 1933. Functions of the cultural divisions within these initiatives were at best convoluted. Financial regulatory aspects fell under the Treasury department who eventually established the Treasury Relief Art Project, which exerted some control over the Work Progress Administration (WPA) department, who oversaw the employment of artists under the Federal Arts Project (FAP). Despite shuffling administrations and department names, the guiding principals of the initiatives consistent and the Treasury legislated that 1% of the funds allocated to the construction costs on new infrastructure projects be dedicated to artistic embellishment.  

Holger Cahill was head of the Federal Art Project (FAP, 1935-1939) and its successor, the WPA Art Program (1939-1943). In his programs he implemented his teacher, John Dewey’s, beliefs that education should be the most important tool for social change. Dewey’s philosophy on education was it must be experiential to be effective: “Students should be active, not passive. They required compelling and relevant projects, not lectures. Students should become problem solvers. Interest, not fear, should be used to motivate them. They should cooperate, not compete.” . Cahill sought to reposition the popular perception of the high arts in American society and bring it into the valued interest of the masses. He also interpreted Dewey’s ideas about art as part of his program objectives: everyone could be an artist by representing interpretations of their unique experiences; art must communicate moral purpose and nurture relevant education; only in nurturing interpretations of individual experience can we develop a true democratic expression for our nation. Thus, the  FAP’s main objective to deliver familiar images that expressed shared values and experiences, and offered visions of hope and progress.

Biddle conspired with his friend FDR to promote an idea of hope for Great Depression era Americans: the pursuit of happiness went beyond the promise of economic success from hard work; it included the pursuit of enrichment by educational and cultural means. They believed art made by and for the masses would allow space for the voices for social justice and rally a national definition of the American Dream. Ideas for art accessibility didn’t originate in the 1930’s; older ideologues like Emerson & Jefferson deliberated the possible benefits of how to promote culture to the masses and once introduced to the arts might drive an art market contributing to the national economic health. To achieve these ideals of a cultural democracy, there needed to be a system that would reconnect the everyman to the artist and motivate them to portray “mainstream American life and make the arts both expressive of the spirit of the nation and accessible to its people.”

FDRs imagined that artists were receiving welfare anyway, so why not provide them meaningful work that increased the value of public buildings,  enriched the public mindset, and preserves or enhances the workers skills for their return to private industry. De hart Matthews suggests that Roosevelt saw a dual economic benefit in creating a wider market of art consumers. The debates of aesthetic ideals would be left to the local administrators, along with how to determine what art should be made, by whom, and where it should be placed for maximum effect. The initial directives loosely required that the quality of the artwork follow high-art standards, but their themes must remain relevant to their intended public audiences.

According to Horowitz, the New Deal strongly identified one of the government’s roles to be defining a national culture. The Federally subsidized programs sought to go beyond giving artists the opportunity to make art, it sought to nurture the development of a national art movement: by, about, and for the people. As such, one of the contributing factors aiding in the adoption of a national art program was the public discourse on the international communist movement against fascism known as the People’s or Popular Front. The bourgeoisie were perceived as Fascists to the oppresses poor and the New Deal’s rhetoric was centred on elevating the people economically while giving a cultural voice through its arts programs. For working class writers like Kenneth Burke and Edmund Wilson, having a cultural voice was a means of self-improvement and a path beyond menial labour.

The initial objectives of the New Deal can be summed up as follows: relief for the unemployed; recovery of the economy through the creation of jobs; redefine capitalism through infrastructure reform and the creation of new social welfare programs. The second phase started in 1935 and focused on increasing worker protections that built long-lasting financial security for all Americans. One of the most notable pieces of legislation included the creation of  the Public Works of Art Project. Its guiding purpose was to place artists at the same status and standards as other workers. Four months latter it was absorbed into The Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed Americans in public works projects, from constructing bridges and roads to painting murals and writing plays. 

The WPA is estimated to have employed over 8.5 million workers. At the peak of the second phase, the arts divisions known as Federal Project Number One, or Federal One employed about 5,300 visual artists and craftspeople from every community across the country under the Federal Art Project (FAP) division. The others divisions were were the federal Music Project, the federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the Historical Records Survey. Each had its own administrators, ideals, objectives, challenges and success, but we will focus mainly on the visual arts in this paper. 

The system wasn’t perfect. The majority of the WPA initiatives were aimed at poor white men and although it intended pay equity across race and gender; in practice it failed to circumvent prevailing biases: Minority Americans and women were usually offered lesser opportunities. Federal statistics indicate only 13.5% of the employed were women and they usually were allocated to lower positioned and paying jobs, with one exception: the arts. Thanks to Ellen Woodward, a then director associated with the Professional Projects Division, who successfully achieved equal or better pay for women in the arts divisions. Furthermore, only one person was allowed to be designated as the head of the family and apply to the program. Other able bodies in the household couldn’t contribute to the family and community wealth under the WPA. This contributed to gender inequalities as the most common head of the family was the father. 

The FAP was headed by curator and fine and folk art expert, Holger Cahill. It had similar aims and ideals of the WPA, but allocated funds predicated on the participation of the local public. Administrations in the civic centres decentralized job allocation control for the state and local governments of oversee. The program gave few specific parameters for who could apply to them and allowed their local administrators to interpret these broad directives for selecting potential employees: they must be unemployed and local; be skilled at doing the required task; the project must be on public property; be socially useful; be a new project; and most of the money must be for the worker’s wages. It is estimated that the local civic art centres around the country that were funded by the WPA achieved a national monthly attendance of about 60,000 participants in their classes and produced for local exhibition over 230,000 art objects, including drawings, paintings, sculptures , and murals. The FAP did more than provide a salary, it filled the artists with new purpose and a sense of social responsibility. These guiding factors helped initiated the success of many artist, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston.

The FAP preferred more realistic styles of art, such as Social Realism and Regionalism, partially due to the fact that was the prevalent styles available to the mainly privileged administrators. Artistic nationalism was a central tenet for much New Deal art. Americana was expressed by muralists painting scenes depicting local history and colour, photographers documenting daily life, novelist and playwrights dramatizing American heroes, and writers producing travel guides aggrandizing local histories for tourism. The American Scene movement, showed scenes of regional life that spoke to the viewers of local values and qualities. This became the predominant style for the rural murals, since local administrators and populations found these sorts of images easier to understand. With allowing local administrators and artists some freedom to decide on styles, a greater artistic pluralism was achieved, especially in the urban centres where the inspirations were frequently far more diversified and the expressions more experimental. 

A sense of community was ingrained in the objectives of these projects and it helped forge stronger connections between the artists and the public. In urban centres, where the artists lined up to receive their pay checks and developed collaborations while waiting together. In rural settings, the artists often became part of the educational systems. This democratization of art was partially achieved in the objective to represent local themes relevant to the local public. These local thematic expressions became fuel to revolutionize art and everyday life for Americans in the 1960’s when media permitted a national and international viewing audience into the local issues depicted in their art.

Other than the murals commissioned by the WPA and painted by Los Tres Grandes: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueros, there are a few important examples of American artists who made murals that spoke to the people of the time and fall into the objectives of the WPA and speak the people’s voice. The remarkable common thread between them is that they are all considered to be done in a Regionalist style and all show the very heavy influence of Los Tres Grandes.  Here’s a partial list worth visiting: 

  • Thomas Hart Benton’s murals for the New School of Social Research: “America Today” (c.1930)
  • Thomas Hart Benton’s mural for the State capitol Building in Jefferson City: “State of Missouri” (c.1930)
  • Arshile Gorky’s mural: “Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations” (1937)
  • Philip Guston’s mural for the post office in Commerce, Georgia: “Early Mail Service and the Construction of the Railroad” (1938) 
  • George Biddle’s mural for for department of justice, Washington. DC: “Society Freed Through Justice” (1936)

The aesthetic and allegorical influence of Los Tres Grandes is important to understand when unpacking one of the initial directives of the WPA; to elevate all Americans. Collectively, Los Tres Grandes could be seen as revolutionary Socialists who were portrayers of their communities’ voices. They used traditional high art techniques and classical themes to express modern cultural issues and explore new materials. They taught the public about itself in visually captivating images. They were a minority in the USA and given a major voice to represent their perspectives and their community. They were seen as representatives of the great things all people could achieve through hard work.  However, these egalitarian intentions didn’t always materialize in the hands of the local administrators, nor in the outcomes of congressional input. 

When congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in 1935 to protect and promote authentic Indigenous artworks, they brought awareness of those art forms to a wider audience, but not of Indigenous social issues. The New Deal hired many Indigenous artists, but beyond alleviating some individual poverty, it didn’t address the impacts of the reservation system oppressing them and it contributed to the commodification of still misunderstood Indigenous symbols. Congress also added issues of censorship. For example the HUAC & Dies Committees discriminated against more Socialistically and Communistically minded artists and themes; which seems to contradict the labour-centred focus of the New Deal agenda when one considers that some of these artists were themselves working-calls labour leaders on flagship projects. 

One important working class artists who flourished under FAP was Martina Gangle. A vocal activist against the conservative aesthetic ideals of the New Deal, she rose to positions of influence that enabled her to paint important murals about working-class life. Her work on the Timberland Lodge in Oregon propelled her into various leadership positions in art community where she continued to champion the workers. It’s her work as a people’s representative that makes her an important mention in Horowitz’s article. Without the initial support of the WPA, many other artists might not have had her support to flourish. Had it not been for Roosevelt formulating the initial FAP participation requirements to include artists with socialist allegiances, Gangle could not have benefited from it. In later years, she accused the elite FAP administrators of exploiting underprivileged artists and squashing their political views, but Horowitz suggest other factors contributed to the failures of the programs.

Starting with budget cuts to the programs in 1939 due to abuses and inconsistent local oversight, the WPA shut down in 1943 when increased military production related to World War II led to a significant decrease in unemployment. Program legislation and the need for repeated congressional approval for funding contributed to the failures of the program. These discouraged potential projects and often eliminated them under mountains of political red tape. Political agendas and reports of corruption incited the congress to abolish the Federal Theatre program four years after it was begun. Other programs fell to similar issues.

The programs succeeded in bringing arts to the people, but several issues persisted. De Hart Matthews suggests that part of the failure resides with the division directors, who may have been hampered by dogmatic definitions of high art , an inability to popularize the education of these art forms to the ordinary practitioner, and a failure to establish connections with the intended audiences. Public perception of the projects was mixed as the cultural programs allowed a very public voice of the times, which was usually angry, scared, and including the administrative support structure, and frequently fuelled the critics concerns about the financial costs of these programs. 

Despite these, the overall volume of visual arts created under the PWAP-FAP indicates a great success; with an approximate number exceeding eighty-thousand public works in print, painting, sculpture, and murals. All in an Americana style that portrayed regional characteristics and themes, as well as perceptions of the cultural identities within America’s diversity. In the end, Park concludes that any troubles over funding had less to do with what influenced the administrators of the projects, than where they were being painted. The programs served the local communities and that developed into the legacy we experience today.

The WPA was intended to alleviate the economic and psychological cost of paying people to do nothing. Beyond its goals of supplementing the welfare burden on the state, it debated existing definitions of infrastructure to include public works of art; a debate that is still ongoing to this day. It employed both skilled and unskilled labourers to contribute to the improvements in the country. It opened the doors for artists from all over the country to express themselves and the voices of their communities. It helped launch new ways of seeing art and new ways of expressing it (eg. Abstract expressionism). We can see the long reaching effects of this expressive explosion in the murals and street art of today, which is now becoming mainstream and finding its way into museums. The goal of bringing art to the masses, made by the masses, and about the masses is becoming a practical reality.

The challenge to paint for the masses often inspired artists to think beyond traditional themes and methods; it gave rise to experimentation. Regionally, styles differed with the cultural make up of the local populations. The acceptance of regional culture became so valued that it inspired a series of internationally popular travel books: The Baedekers guide series of 378 books ranging on topics from “history, geology, racial makeup, industries, folklore, social life, arts and crafts, and culture” painted a comprehensive picture of America and the American identity.

De Hart Matthews recommends that art historians, when debating the success or failure of the New Deal program must state “it was only partially realized, perhaps because it was only partially articulated.” In regards to a single National art style, she cites Gottlieb’s assertion that the diversity of the American people made one impossible. Regardless, murals placed art where everyday people could see it. With relatable themes and bold imagery the masses started to pay attention to art. “This basic policy for the people… has done more to awaken an art interest in the masses than could possibly have been calculated.” The very pragmatic rationale FDR had for doing this started to come to fruition; the more the public was exposed to art, the greater their interest in consuming it. Thus, the artists would find additional markets freeing them from the expensive social assistance programs that initially supported them. 

Arguably, the modern civil rights movement can trace its origins to the New Deal era. It might be one of the first major governmental initiatives to employ African-Americans and help them achieve some economic independence. These racial considerations may have pulled the administration toward social policy that was moderately favourable and thus historically dramatic in terms of the interests of African-Americans and other minorities. Thus, the federal acknowledgements of the inequalities between races and genders empowered political art and mobilizations. We are seeing this phenomenon resurface in very political street art from artists like Banksy who produce relevant locally-themed works around the world in their unique styles.

As a point of view on the legacy of the WPA-FAP murals projects, Zia Salim explores the importance of location in the determinants for function and allegorical content of murals in an East LA, Mexicano barrio. The murals tend to be designed to transform local architecture and imbue it with the Chicano character that provides the people with their sense of space. The character expressed is a reflection of the holistic community, even to the point of including the function of the building upon which a mural is painted into the design. These expressions of character indicate what the Salim refers to as a classic barrio. In other words, the barrio and the murals are linked to express how the inhabitants see themselves in the bigger world around them. 

Her findings indicate that three major themes express their place and space. Origin stories denote heritage and establish belonging to the culture; they are filled with traditional iconography. Struggles are broken into historical gradients of issues that impacted Mexican communities in the past, such as the United Farm Workers and Chicano Civil Rights movements; to more specific characters or events impacting the local community more recently, such as commemorations to police-killed activists like Ruben Salazar. Catholicism is ingrained in the Mexican identity and the use of icons such as the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, reminds the people of their virtue as a people. This icon is frequently used as a form of protection. It is so highly revered that it is almost never marred by graffiti. 

Salim defines influences on these muralists as “antecedents” indicating the level of respect they have for those that inspired them. The first antecedent stems from the traditional and social themed Mexican works of Los Tres Grandes.  The second is the murals New Deal programs. which were equally inspired by Los Tres Grandes, but made in America. The third is the 1960’s civil right movement. This one being the most ephemeral and open to evolving narratives. Salim suggests this to be the defining factor of their social awareness. Other imagery gets mixed into larger themes in order to emphasize the hopefulness and optimism of the community: environment, landscapes, landmarks, and abstract/decorative images.

The distinction between murals, street art, commercial art, and graffiti is often blurred and this speaks to the importance of this art form to these communities. For example, smaller works often double as promotion for local businesses. This illustrates the importance these businesses have to the character of the community. This also speaks to the evolutionary aspect of the barrio murals, in that they often incorporate local sports team and business logos. The murals are meant to represent the dynamism of the neighbourhood. Salim explains this by quoting famous muralist, Ybarra Fausto: “…the most radical aspect of Chicano community murals is that they were not art for the people but art of the people”

In calling for more research on the murals in different communities, Salim gives us a call to action. Murals and public art are valuable reflections of the people they represent. Syracuse University scholar, Sharif Bey argued that murals must not be regarded solely for their aesthetic qualities, but rather for the socio-emotional impact on public memory. Public art plays a role in social justice education, community building, humanity, and global citizenship that works across languages and geography. As individuals, we must demand of our society to allow for spaces to be made available, so that all voices can be experienced. Especially in our extraordinary pandemic conditions, where so many galleries and museums are closing, street art has become a great way for diverse voices to be heard and bring us together in the act of hearing them.

Post Image: Mail Transportation – Fletcher Martin 1938


Adams, D., Goldbard, A. “New Deal Cultural Programs – Experiments in Cultural Democracy” Adapted by the authors from Cultural Democracy (1986). Accessed April 2nd, 2021.

Blashfield, E.H. “Art for the Public Space” National Society of Mural Painters (2008): Accessed April 3rd, 2021

De Hart Mathews, Jane. Arts and the People: The New Deal Quest for a Cultural Democracy. Journal of American History. Oxford University Press, vol. 62, no. 2, Sept 1975, pp. 316-339. 

Horowitz, David A. “The New Deal and People’s Art: Market Planners and Radical Artists.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 109, no. 2 (2008): 318-28. Accessed March 4, 2021.

Mahoney, Eleanor. “The Great Depression in Washington State”. Civil Rights and labour Consortium. University of Washington (2009). Accessed April 2, 2021

Musher, Sharon Ann. Democratic Art : The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Norman, Geoffrey. “The Development of American Mural Painting.” Art for the millions: Essays from the 1930s artists and administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. New York Graphic Society, 1973, pp. 50-62.

Park, Marlene. “City and Country in the 1930s: A Study of New Deal Murals in New York.” Art Journal 39, no. 1 (1979): 37-47. Accessed March 4, 2021. doi:10.2307/776326. 

Salim, Zia. “Painting a Place: A Spatiothematic Analysis of Murals in East Los Angeles.” Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers 79 (2017): 41-70. Accessed March 4, 2021.

Wallis, J.J., Fishback, P.V., & Kantor, S.E. “Politics, Relief, and Reform. Roosevelt’s Efforts to Control Corruption and Political Manipulation during the New Deal.” Corruption and reform: Lessons from America’s economic history. University of Chicago Press (2006): 343-4. 


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