It is commonly assumed that all public art commissioned by the federal government during the Depression was sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. In fact, four New Deal art programs operated during this time.
It all began when artist George Biddle wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt to say that artists were in need of economic relief as much as anyone else; this led to the first program, the Public Works of Art Project (1933–34). As that ended, the second program came into existence. It was called the U.S. Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and filled the void from 1934–1939, when it became the Section of Fine Art. Both are simply referred to as “the Section.”
The Section awarded commissions on a project basis – funded by 1% of the building cost – and was regional in nature, stressing local color and ideals of community, democracy and hard work. Conventional art was favored, to appeal to the broadest audience.
Yet another program, called the Federal Arts Project, which was under the WPA, began in 1935. It employed artists on a salary, primarily to create art for schools, hospitals and libraries, and did not limit work to representational art. Abstract artist Jackson Pollock was one well-known artist who benefited from the FAP, although none of his work was created for Evanston.
The Section and the FAP were reorganized in 1939 under the Federal Works Agency; all art programs ended in 1942–1943. Artists in these programs spoke of an uplift to morale and of the sense of being at last acknowledged as an important member of the social family, with a place in the economic system.
In Evanston, numerous examples of New Deal art were installed, and many still exist.
The Section emphasized art in post offices, since these buildings were a key link to the federal government and used by all citizens in a community. In 1938 our Main Post Office was awarded two pairs of sculptures: Robert I. Russin’s Throwing the Mail and Mail Handler, 7-foot-tall cast aluminum figures covered with 23-carat gold foil, and Armin A. Scheler’s carved limestone reliefs over the entry doors titled The Answer and The Message. These sculptures embody the heroic ideal typical of much Section art.
Evanston’s public schools became home to many pieces of New Deal art due to the ardent sponsorship of Frederick Nichols, Evanston’s superintendent of schools and secretary of the Board of Education during the New Deal, and a member of the Federal Art Project’s citizen’s advisory board. Unfortunately, many of the works have disappeared during renovations or repairs. A selection of the remaining works follows:
The Organ Grinder, by George Orloff, is a watercolor painting at Washington School said to depict a real organ grinder who performed in downtown Evanston. Negro Children, Band Playing and Dance Scene are oil paintings at Nichols School by Harlem Renaissance painter Archibald Motley Jr., one of the very few African American artists sponsored by the New Deal. It was thought that the racial diversity of the school and neighborhood were the reason for Motley’s inclusion and subject matter.
At Oakton School, pinewood bas reliefs by Alfred Lenzi remain, titled Animals, Farm Animals and Wild Animals of America. Carl Scheffler and Ethel Spears painted
Charlemagne, a series of recently restored murals.
Anyone entering Haven School has passed four 6-ft Bedford limestone sculptures of children by Mary Anderson Mott. Each child is in a contemplative mood and accompanied by a companion animal. In the entry hall are 9 Portrait Circles, oak bas reliefs by Louise Pain. Haven’s riches continue with Carl Scheffler’s Old Lady in the Shoe and Cinderella murals in the main floor hallway.
Although not specific to Evanston, further examples of New Deal art are preserved in the collection of Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum.
This essay expands on content that appears in Evanston:150 Years 150 Places, 2015.
Design Evanston’s “Eye on Evanston” articles focus on Evanston’s design history and advocate for good design in our city. Visit designevanston.org to learn more about the organization.
My first article for the RoundTable was on the history of the statues at Haven School, which badly need cleaning and repair. See link: https://evanstonroundtable.com/2022/02/25/public-artworks-by-women-abound-in-evanston/ I have never seen that watercolor, but I sure remember the organ grinder in Evanston. He played at the corner of Church and
Sherman, in front of Marshall Fields. He had a leashed monkey that would jump off his shoulder and run around collecting money in his little hat. I am interested in starting a tour of in-school WPA art. Would you like to help?