Posters for Relief: Federal Art Project served up purpose for artists

By Karen Knapstein

Thousands of artists during the Great Depression were able to, at least in part, support themselves with their talents. This is due to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project. It was the visual arts branch of the Works Progress1 Administration (WPA).

The Federal Art Project (FAP) was in operation from August 1935 until June 1943. It was an employment program similar to other branches of the WPA. The intent of its establishment is in putting qualified unemployed artists and artisans to work while raising America’s spirits in the process.

Heralding the Federal Art Project 

1930s WPA work-incentive poster

Anonymous. Dreams Without Action Produce No Results. Action Makes Dreams Come True, circa 1930s acrylic and pencil on board original WPA-era work-incentive poster artwork depicts a man in uniform idling, while the industrial world powers ahead in the background. $300. (Photo courtesy Potter & Potter Auctions, www.potterauctions.com)

Estimates put the number of artists working for the Federal Art Project at 14,000. In addition to creating murals, paintings, and sculptures still visible in many parks and public buildings, artists set to work designing and producing posters for the government. Estimates also put the number of Federal Art Projects at more than 100,000.

In her essay “American Printmakers and the Federal Art Project, Dr. Mary Francey, Professor Emerita of Art and Art History, University of Utah, says the screen prints created for the FAP were “socially relevant and often conceptually innovative.”3 Dr. Francey further explains the practicality and reach of printmaking over other art mediums.

“Because painting and sculpture could achieve only limited exposure while prints had a large and diverse audience, many Project administrators supported printmaking as the logical process for creating art for the people,” she said.

By 1938, the New York City Poster Project alone, which employed only about 50 artists, had produced more than 306,000 prints from 11,240 original designs. Overall, California, Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania bear witness to the largest number of poster designs. Nationwide, some 35,000 posters bear connection to the project.

The diversity of the subjects cannot be overstated. These early “public service announcements” include, but are not limited to, government funded art exhibitions and programs, theater productions, community activities, national parks, public health and safety, workplace production, wartime propaganda, and educational programs.

Limited Poster Survival

Although an estimated 2 million posters were produced, only about 2,000 survive. Joern Weigelt, a 22-year veteran of the vintage poster business and co-founder of PosterConnection, Inc., a San Francisco-area vintage poster auction business, explains, “Many of the WPA posters were printed on board. Most pieces were printed as silkscreens. This made them particularly fragile and difficult to handle.”

Silk screening was introduced to the WPA poster division in New York City by artist Anthony Velonis. His pamphlet, “Technical Problems of the Artist: Techniques of the Silk Screen Process,” introduced silk screening to other poster projects around the country, putting them in a position to produce more posters at a lower cost.

The number of subjects and large amount of beautifully designed silkscreen (serigraph) prints produced would have provided collectors with plenty to pursue had not the vast majority been destroyed or lost. The posters are truly ephemeral because they are fragile and were destined for the trash; the paint and silkscreen ink are prone to chipping and flaking, and the posters were created with the intent of them being temporary.

Weigelt explains why so few remain: “They were meant to be printed, published (i.e. put up on billboards, etc.) and then discarded or glued over. There was never a consideration to preserve them.”

National Park Service Benefits from Poster Project

Although they are a minuscule percentage of the total number of posters created in the Poster Project, some designs that have survived and the public is enamored with today, were created for the National Park Service between 1938 and 1941. In August 1938, Western Museum Laboratories of Berkeley, California, began participating in the WPA’s Poster Project and launched the National Parks poster series.

Fourteen different posters, believed designed by WPA artist Chester Don Powell and screen printed by Dale Miller, were produced before the National Parks poster program was shut down at the onset of World War II. Doug Leen, a retired dentist and former park ranger affectionately known as “Ranger Doug,” has made it his mission in life to track down the original 14 National Park Service posters and get them back to the Park Service and back into the public domain, where they belong.

Leen first saw a National Park Service poster in 1973, while he was working as a park ranger in Grand Teton National Park. During this time his acquisition includes a Grand Teton poster heading ‘for the park burn-pile.”

Ranger Doug Celebrating Poster Project

According to Ranger Doug, finding this poster sparked a 20-year effort that led him to Harpers Ferry,

Rhyming and reading WPA poster

Rhyming and reading WPA poster. Sold as part of a lot of seven for $3,120 in 2010 through Swann Galleries.

West Virginia, “where 13 black-and-white negatives survived in the file drawers of the National Park Service archives. These negatives and the single poster, then the only one known to survive, were the templates used for reconstruction of this set.”

Leen has five of the original 14 designs in his personal collection, which is the largest collection of the Federal Arts Project’s National Park Service posters in private hands. Reportedly, the Library of Congress also has five.

Just having the posters isn’t the end of the mission for Leen. “They were made to inspire the public. They need to be made available,” he says.

In 2015, Leen made a proposal to the National Park Service that the exhibit that had been on display at the Dept. of the Interior in Washington, D.C., travel across the United States. Leen made a case that America should see these magnificent posters that have been lost to history – especially during the Park Service’s centennial year, 2016. However, the Park Service said they couldn’t do it because they didn’t have the budget for it.

Hitting the Road in the Name of WPA

So, at his own expense, Leen and his collection hit the road to educate the public. With his customized 1948 Airstream trailer in tow, over 15 months, Ranger Doug visited 176 park units, gave dozens of talks and put on a whopping 44,177 miles.

Safely back at home in Alaska, Leen says his job isn’t finished yet. Of the 14 original designs in the series, he has found and reproduced 12. He is so dedicated to finding the final two – Wind Cave and Great Smoky Mountains – that he is offering a $5,000 reward for each of them. His intent is to use the original posters to recreate the screens so he can create new serigraphs of these long-lost examples, and then donate the originals to the National Park Service archives in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

Ranger Doug would like to see a National Park poster in every home across America. He founded Ranger Doug Enterprises (www.rangerdoug.com) as a hobby in 1993. His company has been re-creating and selling National Parks posters ever since. His posters are marketed mainly to park service bookstores. They’ve been quite popular; park-goers and supporters are eager to collect the archival-quality, nostalgic serigraphs. The sales of the reproduction WPA serigraphs, in addition to WPA-style posters of his own design, have allowed Ranger Doug to raise millions of dollars for the budget-strapped National Park Service.

Prolific Program

If nature and national parks don’t have an appeal, remember: Artists created approximately 35,000 designs. Many of the remaining examples have powerful imagery and text. Nostalgic posters exhibiting messaging on wartime propaganda, public health issues, social vices and virtues, and literacy appear more often, although still infrequently.

[According to the Library of Congress, “By 1942, all the remaining WPA art projects were transferred to the Defense Department to become the Graphics Section of the War Service Division,” which explains the prevalent amount of wartime propaganda poster designs.]

There have been questions raised as to whether or not they are worth pursuing because of their rarity. Some of the “most recent” auction results are more than five years old. Swann Galleries seems to offer the posters more frequently than many other auction houses. In May 2010, a bidder took home a collection of seven circa 1941 Illinois WPA Art Project. The Chicago nursery rhyme posters were by various artists for $3,120. Furthermore, the lot included “A Reader can never Read too Many Books,” “Little Miss Muffet (by Arlington Gregg), “Wee Willie Winkle (by Cleo Sara,” “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” “This Little Boy Went to the Market,” “Miss Muffet / Are you Doing Your Part?” and “Hey Diddle Diddle.”

Tapping Nursery Rhymes

Wee Willie Winkie WPA reading poster

Another item of the single lot of seven WPA posters to sell through Swann Galleries in 2010.

The posters cited nursery rhymes – with a literacy advocacy twist for Illinois’ Statewide Library Project. For example, one poster cites:

Little Miss Muffet / Sat on a tuffet / Reading a picture book / There came a spider / And sat down beside her / And said, “May I have a look”?

At the same auction in May 2010, a group of five “Be Kind to Books” posters, fetched $4,080. The books date to1936-40, and one bears the signature of Arlington Gregg, 

During Potter & Potter Auctions’ Sept. 25, 2016 Advertising, Toys & Coin Op auction, the firm offered a modest selection of “original WPA-era work-incentive poster artwork” in the form of acrylic and pencil on board, all measuring 15 by 20 inches. None bore WPA markings. Perhaps the designs are rejects of those submitted, or, were not part of the official Federal Art Project. However, they are good examples of work-incentive and encouraging social behavior designs. None sold for more than $600, including buyer’s premiums.

Posters Commanding Attention at Auction

“It Can’t Be Done Means Nothing to the Man Who Tries,” acrylic and pencil on board sold for $570. So, too, did “Wisdom is the Art of Being a Good Listener. Cash in On the Other Fellows Experiences,” also with light scuffs to the board. “Enthusiasm is the Magnet that Attracts Customers. Use It!” with light soiling sold for $360, while “There’s Opportunity in Your Job. Dig it Out!” and “Friendly Consideration of Little Needs Oftimes Develops Big Customers!” each sold for $390. The artwork for “Dreams Without Action Produce No Results. Action Makes Dreams Come True” sold for just $300.

Weigelt observes, “Good designs earn a premium. In today’s market, travel posters (and perhaps propaganda posters) seem to sell best. People can associate with travel destinations, places they have been to (or want to visit). But a travel poster with a photographic image (regardless of whether it is from the 1930s or the 1960s) will always be much less sought after than one designed by an artist.”

When considering WPA posters, condition issues may be less problematic than with many other types of posters. Weigelt says, “The more rare a poster, the less critical people will be about its condition. Don’t get me wrong: Condition is important and can have a huge impact on a poster’s value. But if a poster is basically unknown and impossible to find, even a poster in poor condition may fetch a premium price.”

WPA Poster Ownership

In recent years, the FBI has been actively seeking lost artworks created through WPA programs. This then begs the question: “If I find a WPA poster, can I legally own it?”

Leen says he spoke with the FBI and was assured that, unlike other artworks created under the patronage of the WPA, the FBI will not claim the art back because artists were allowed to keep three copies of their designs. “They can’t identify if they were public ones or if they were the artists’ own copies,” Leen explains.

Depression-era WPA posters are exceedingly rare. However, if you think you have one, look closely at it. On original posters, inks were applied either by hand or screen printing. Leen explains that images were printed on inexpensive paper stock that was not acid-free. With that, on many posters, the heavy poster board has turned a “coppery-rust” color with age. In addition, the posters also exhibit dark flecks.

The WPA’s goals were to supplement artists’ incomes and fund patriotic and public projects. All of this in an effort to rally downhearted American citizens. The program allowed thousands of artists to earn a wage and, perhaps, avoid the bread lines. In addition, artists of the Federal Arts Project created a vivid visual history of government programs and initiatives of the 1930s.

More Federal Art Project Examples

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