Public Works of Art Project

The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was a program to employ artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression. The program was headed by Edward Bruce, under the United States Treasury Department with funding from the Civil Works Administration. The PWAP ran from 1933 to 1934 and was a New Deal program during the period of the Great Depression.[1] The PWAP served as way to employ artists, while having competent representatives of the profession display their work in a public setting.[2] Although the program lasted less than one year, it had employed 3,700 artists, who produced nearly 15,000 works of art. [2] In an art exhibition that featured 451 paintings commissioned by the PWAP, 30 percent of the artists featured were in their twenties, and 25 percent were first-generation immigrants.[3]

One of the Coit Tower murals, 1934
Maxine Albro, California (mural), 1934, Coit Tower, San Francisco
Agnes Tait, Skating in Central Park 1934
Astronomer's Monument at Griffith Observatory, 1934

Overview and purposeEdit

The purpose of the Public Works of Art Project was "to give work to artists by arranging to have competent representatives of the profession embellish public buildings."[4] Artworks from the project were shown or incorporated into a variety of locations, including the White House and the House of Representatives.[4] Artists were paid an average of $75.59 per artwork, and the PWAP used a total of $1,184,400 to pay artists for their work.[5] Participants were required to be professional artists, and in total, 3,749 artists were hired, and 15,663 works were produced:[5] 7,000 easel paintings; 700 mural projects; 750 sculptures; and 2500 works of graphic art were commissioned by the PWAP.[6]

The PWAP sought to produce images focused on the "American Scene", and commissioned paintings and murals that depicted "optimistic visions of America during a time of economic desperation."[7] However, many artists disliked the idea of creating art that focused only on the positive aspects of living in America, as people were still experiencing dire hardships and personal tragedies from the Great Depression.[7] This created a community of PWAP artists who aspired to create artworks depicting both the "haves" and "have nots" of America, referred to as Social Realists.

The project was succeeded by the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Art from the Public Works of Art ProjectEdit

Coit Tower MuralsEdit

Murals inside of Coit Tower

The largest of the projects sponsored by the PWAP were the murals in San Francisco's Coit Tower, employing a total of 44 artists and assistants, begun in December 1933 and completed in June 1934. Many of the muralists were faculty members or former students of the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Among the lead artists were Maxine Albro, Victor Arnautoff, Jane Berlandina, Ray Bertrand, Roy Boynton, Ralph Chesse, Ben Cunningham, Rinaldo Cuneo, Harold Mallette Dean, Parker Hall, Edith Hamlin, George Albert Harris, William Hesthal, John Langley Howard, Lucien Labaudt, Gordon Langdon, Jose Moya del Pino, Otis Oldfield, Frederick E. Olmsted, Suzanne Scheuer, Ralph Stackpole, Edward Terada, Frede Vidar, Clifford Wight, and Bernard Zakheim.

After a majority of the murals were completed, the Big Strike of 1934 shut down the Pacific Coast. Though it has been claimed that allusions to the event were subversively included in the murals by some of the artists, in fact the murals were largely completed before the strike began and none of those that were not completed by that time show any reference to the strike.[8]

Griffith Observatory's Astronomers MonumentEdit

The Astronomers Monument, commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project in 1933, sits outside of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. The Astronomers Monument was designed by Archibald Garner, and created by Garner and five other artists.[9] Each artist was responsible for sculpting one of the astronomers featured in the monument, and in total the monument features six influential astronomers: Hipparchus (about 150 BC);  Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543); Galileo Galilei (1564–1642); Johannes Kepler (1571–1630); Isaac Newton (1642–1727); and William Herschel (1738–1822). One of the artists, George Stanley, was also the creator of the famous "Oscar" statuette presented at the Academy Awards.

On November 25, 1934, about six months prior to the opening of the Observatory, a celebration took place to mark the completion of the Astronomers Monument. The only "signature" on the Astronomers Monument is "PWAP 1934" referring to the program which funded the project and the year it was completed.

Muse of Music, Dance, DramaEdit

Painting of the Muse of Music, Dance, Drama monument, 1940

This Art Deco style monument serves as the gateway to the Hollywood Bowl, and is said to be the largest of hundreds of monuments in Southern California constructed during the New Deal.[10] The 200-foot long, 22-foot high sculpture is also a fountain and was constructed with concrete and covered with slabs of decorative granite.

The structure was completed in 1940 by George Stanley, also a contributor to the Griffith Observatory's Astronomers Monument and who is better known as the sculptor who molded the original Academy Awards' Oscar statue. The structure was refurbished in 2006.[11]

Golden Gate BridgeEdit

Ray Strong, Golden Gate Bridge (1934)

This painting, titled Golden Gate Bridge, was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project in 1934. The artist, Ray Strong, painted a depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge while it was under construction. Building the Golden Gate Bridge seemed impossible at the time it was built, due to the wind and overall complexity of the bridge design.[12] This painting was commissioned as a tribute to the engineering and design feats undertaken during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. This painting represents the American Idealism art style.[12]

Connecticut BarnsEdit

Charles Sheeler, Connecticut Barns (1934)

This 1934 painting was not recognized as being the work of Charles Sheeler until a General Services Administration art researcher found it in an Interior Department closet in 1983. It was not known that Sheeler had been employed by the Public Works of Art Project because the artist’s name had been misspelled in government records. He was paid $221.85 for Connecticut Barns. Its title distinguishes it from a similar watercolor—Connecticut Barns in Landscape—measuring 4 by 5 inches, which is thought to be a study for this oil canvas.[13]

Additional worksEdit

See alsoEdit

Federal Art Project, a New Deal federal arts program operated by the Works Progress Administration which ran from 1935 to 1943.


  1. ^ Lorance, Nancy. "History of the New Deal Art Projects". Retrieved May 5, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ a b provided by John R. Graham, Curator of Exhibits, Western Illinois University Art Gallery, 1 University Circle, Macomb, Illinois 61455
  3. ^ Brown, Elizabeth. "1934: A New Deal for Artists". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Archived from the original on 18 March 2015. Retrieved May 1, 2022.
  4. ^ a b Brown, Elizabeth. ""1934: A New Deal for Artists"". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Archived from the original on 18 March 2015. Retrieved May 1, 2022.
  5. ^ a b Adler, Jerry (June 2009). "An Exhibition of Depression-Era Paintings by Federally-Funded Artists Provides a Hopeful View of Life during Economic Travails". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved May 10, 2022.
  6. ^ "Public Works of Art Project". Britannica. Retrieved May 10, 2022.
  7. ^ a b Fogel, Jared (Fall 2001). "The Canvas Mirror: Painting as Politics in the New Deal". OAH Magazine of History. 16 (1): 17–25. doi:10.1093/maghis/16.1.17. JSTOR 25163482.
  8. ^ Masha Zakheim, Coit Tower, San Francisco: Its History and Art, 2nd edn., 2009
  9. ^ "Astronomers Monument & Sundial". Griffith Observatory. Retrieved May 10, 2022.
  10. ^ "Muse of Music, Dance, Drama | LA County Arts Commission". Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  11. ^ Pool, Bob (2006-06-20). "Getting a Splash From the Past". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2018-04-27.
  12. ^ a b "Golden Gate Bridge". Retrieved May 8, 2022.
  13. ^ Conroy, Sarah Booth (August 10, 1983). "GSA Finds Lost Sheeler Canvas". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 8, 2022.

Further readingEdit

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