When President Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression in 1933, 15 million people were unemployed. He immediately set about putting people in all professions back to work, through a series of programs collectively called the New Deal. He created several programs to employ artists, most notably the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project (FAP).
From 1935 to 1943 FAP took artists off the relief rolls and gave them commissions to create public art. Another program, the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (the Section, 1934-1943) hired the best available professional artists to decorate federal buildings, most notably post offices. Both FAP and the Section led to an explosion of public art in American cities and towns, providing greater access to all of the arts to all Americans. Never before or since has our government sponsored the arts to such a degree.
Artists who found work in these federal-funded art projects enjoyed relative freedom to determine the style and subject matter for their commissions. In general, their artworks reflected the popular aesthetics and themes of the day. Many promoted a sense of national identity by celebrating better times in the country’s past; a recurring theme was the strength and dignity of common men and women portrayed in recognizable activities. Other artists used their commissions to promote social change by drawing attention to racial injustice and economic hardship, the concerns of labor movements and left-wing politicians.
Illinois was one of the most prolific states that participated in federally sponsored art programs during the Great Depression. More than 775 artists and administrators participated in the projects over eight years, creating over 6,000 pieces of art. Although the majority of Illinois’ New Deal era art is found in the Chicago area, Central Illinois has its share. Hit the road and visit some of these sites! You’ll learn about history and art along the way. Click on the map below to see the locations, images, and information about local WPA era art.