Art from Depression-era America will be shown at Oklahoma City Museum of Art

Four years after the devastating stock market crash of October 1929, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected as the 32nd president of the United States. Seeking a way to lessen the ongoing effects of the Depression, Roosevelt quickly established a series of programs designed to create jobs, improve the economy and regulate business and transportation.

In December 1933, Roosevelt's administration created the Public Works of Art Project, a federally funded program that targeted out-of-work artists to create works that could be showcased in public buildings.

Participants were encouraged to depict various aspects of “the American Scene” but were allowed to interpret this idea however they chose. The results ranged from cityscapes to depictions of rural life.

In recognition of the Public Works of Art Project, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art has assembled a collection of artworks in an exhibition titled “1934: A New Deal for Artists.” The exhibit's 56 paintings, which are part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's extensive collection, vividly capture the realities and ideals of Depression-era America.

“The Public Works of Art Project was the first of the federally funded programs to address the arts,” said Alison Amick, curator for the “New Deal” exhibit. “In additional to being beautiful paintings, these works also offer a historical document of that period.”

History, art, culture

Artists from across the nation offered distinct views of their surroundings, including a view of a nighttime baseball game in New York, Midwestern farmers seeking to escape the Dust Bowl and the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

The project also gave opportunities to African-American and Asian-American artists. New Yorker Earle Richardson portrayed the “Employment of Negroes in Agriculture” in one painting, while Seattle artist Kenjiro Nomura depicted a darker view of rural life in his work titled “The Farm.”

“I think quite a bit of the harshness of the time comes through many of these works of art,” Amick said. “You get a sense of the difficulties people faced, from desolate farms to people living in tenement houses. There are different regional perspectives that come through as well.

“The context in which these works were created adds another layer to this exhibit that is worth examining and thinking about. It's quite an interesting range of subjects that offer a fairly balanced view of the times.”

Although the Public Works of Art Project only lasted six months, from December 1933 to June 1934, more than 3,700 artists created 15,663 paintings, murals, sculptures, prints, drawings and craft objects at a cost of $1.3 million.

The Oklahoma City Museum of Art's “New Deal” exhibit is arranged into eight sections: “American People,” “City Life,” “Labor,” “Industry,” “Leisure,” “The City,” “The Country” and “Nature.”

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