Federal Art Programs
The thousands of murals, easel paintings, prints, and sculptures created under the New Deal art programs are commonly referred to as WPA artworks. This classification proves misleading, as only one of the four programs, the Federal Art Project, operated directly under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A more accurate classification of the works of art created under the federal art programs of the 1930s and early 1940s is New Deal artwork, as they were created during the era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic recovery programs.
The Department of the Treasury created the first federal art program in 1933, when it initiated the Public Works of Art Project. Two subsequent programs the Treasury Relief Art Project and the Section of Fine Arts also originated under the Department of the Treasury. In 1935 the Works Progress Administration, an independently operating federal agency established the Federal Art Project.
A number of changes occurred in 1939, when the Reorganization Act created the Federal Works Agency. Incorporated into this new agency were the art programs of both the Department of the Treasury and the Works Progress Administration. In addition to these changes, the Act changed the name of the Works Progress Administration to the Works Projects Administration. By 1942, all of the New Deal art programs ceased to operate. No organized art program was attempted after the war until 1962 when President John F. Kennedy recommended, through the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, the incorporation of artworks of living Americans in newly constructed federal buildings.
The New Deal art programs created works of art for public use, but differed in the way they operated. Some programs were set up to provide economic relief and paid artists an hourly wage, while other programs administered competitions to commission murals and sculptures for specific sites within public buildings. The latter was the case with the Ariel Rios murals under the U.S. Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture.
Section of Painting and Sculpture (in 1939, renamed the Section of Fine Arts) Dates of Operation: 1934 - 1942
Originally called the Section of Painting and Sculpture, the Section of Fine Arts (or, the Section, as it was commonly referred to under both names) was administered by the Treasury Department. The Section of Fine Arts’ primary objective was to “secure suitable art of the best quality available for the embellishment of public buildings. Artworks created under the Section of Fine Arts were comprised of site-specific murals and sculptures for newly constructed federal buildings and post offices.
Unlike the other New Deal art programs, the Section awarded commissions through competitions and paid artists a lump sum for their work. Such competitions were set up so that the artists submitted proposals with out their names identifying their submission. In addition the competitions were open to all artists, regardless of economic status, and typically required entries to follow a certain theme relating to the building’s function and geographic location. In total, the Section commissioned over 1300 murals and 300 sculptures.
The Ariel Rios Building, constructed between 1931 and 1935 as the headquarters for the U.S. Post Office Department, was one of the first buildings to receive works of art under this program.