Robin Holder: Public Artist

Michele Cohen, Ph.D.

The New Deal art programs reinvented the whole system of art patronage, starting a movement which has flowered under Percent for Art programs around the country. Women and artists of color enjoyed greater opportunities for arts-related employment and commissions, a trend that has gained momentum in recent decades. Under the WPA/FAP, if unmarried female artists could demonstrate the same level of economic need as their male counterparts and prove they were professional artists, they received equal pay for equal work. Once assigned to specific divisions on the project, qualified women even held supervisory positions. Under the Federal Art Project, more women worked on the New York City art project than anywhere else in the country.6 Historian Kimn Carlton-Smith estimates the number of women artists working in New York City in 1936, the peak year of the Federal Art Project, at 602.7 Women worked in every division of the Project. They were administrators, painters, sculptors, photographers, clerical workers, models, artist teachers, and graphic artists.

Coupled with supporting the work of women, the New Deal art projects also brought work by non-white artists into public buildings, notably schools and hospitals. The New Deal and its philosophy of cultural democracy helped minimize barriers for artists of color, but the system was not perfect. African American artists received some commissions for murals and sculptures, but as Carlton-Smith has shown, the majority of black women found employment on the teaching division and black artists in general were given priority on projects within the black community.8 The most notable example of this was at Harlem Hospital, where murals were painted by Charles Alston, Vertis Hayes, Georgette Seabrooke, Elba Lightfoot, Selma Day and Sara Murrell.9 No African American artists on the WPA received mural commissions for schools, with the exception of Norman Lewis, who created two collaborative murals with students while teaching at a Manhattan junior high school, now demolished. By 1937, the number of black men and women artists on the New York City Federal Art Project reached 120.10