The Federal One Project of the American New Deal proved to be the most successful marriage between artists and U.S. government. The federal work project was divided into five cultural areas, and, included the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and, the Historical Records Survey.
Funded under the Works Progress Administration in 1935 (later renamed the Works Project Administration (WPA)), the projects set out to employ writers and artists throughout the United States during the Great Depression.
While the stated goal of the program was to provide direct employment to artists and writers in the United States (versus funding organizations which might support the arts), the benefits to the FDR administration were numerous: Americans suffering the effects of the Great Depression were made aware there was an interest in their lives by a government; the works produced by the projects instilled some sense of pride in both the subject of the work, and, the greater American public at large; and, as importantly, the works created through these programs served as record for politicians and American elites of what bad U.S. domestic and economic policy had allowed to occur.
Eudora Welty, John Steinbeck, James Agee, Saul Bellows, Erksine Caldwell, Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Studs Terkel all worked under the projects, which ran for four years.
Works produced by the artists following their employment under the program, included Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Agee and Evans), Tobacco Road (Caldwell), The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), and, Uncle Tom’s Children (Richard Wright).
As to black artists and writers employed by the project, Charles McGowen, author of The Twentieth Century American-Fiction Handbook wrote, “Black writers were very underrepresented on the Federal Writers Project payrolls, but among those employed were Claude McKay and Ralph Ellison in New York, Arna Bontemps, in Chicago and Richard Wright – who worked at different times in both cities.”
Featured image: Lucille Burroughs, daughter of a cotton sharecropper by Walker Evans. 1935 – 1936. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Lucille Burroughs, daughter of a cotton sharecropper. Hale County, Alabama” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 21, 2016.
See our gallery Sharecroppers, a gallery of images produced by Ben Shahn and Walker Evans, as a part of their work for the project.