Racine Art Museum Features Art from the Works Progress Administration

May 10, 2017

When President Franklin Roosevelt debuted the Second New Deal plan in 1935, it was the peak of unemployment in the United States. One fourth of the country was out of work, and the president was tasked with creating new ways to aid his struggling nation.

The Second New Deal was even more ambitious and controversial than the first, and one of the standout initiatives was the creation of the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. The agency funded public works projects like building roads and bridges, but it also gave money to artists to create works for the public.

"Richard Jansen at Work Painting a Map of Wisconsin" 1940, Silver gelatin print.
Credit Anonymous / Courtesy of Racine Art Museum

"I don't think we can put our heads into that place as to how dire that must have been for people who were out of work, and particularly for artists the whole support structure was gone. There were no public commissions, there were no collectors. No one was buying art, they had no money," Bruce Pepich explains. He's executive director and curator of collections for the Racine Art Museum

The museum is currently exhibiting pieces produced by artists employed by the WPA.

While the special exhibit will be up until June 4, the pieces are part of the Racine Art Museum's permanent collection, which includes more 260 works from the Depression-era program.

The WPA employed thousands of artists throughout the country, including some in Wisconsin. Their works now offer a unique glimpse into life and values during the Great Depression. 

"It's such an open window into that time period," says Pepich. "One of the street scenes in a water color by Richard Jansen could be Milwaukee today except there's a dirigible hanging over head in the sky."