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The Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project Reconsidered

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The Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), which operated from 1935 to 1943, was a program created by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), WPA director Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), and FAP director Holger Cahill (1887–1960) to employ American artists throughout the Great Depression. This article reexamines the FAP by looking more closely at Cahill and defining his populist approach to American art, which made the FAP not only a massive work-relief program for artists but also a major public education initiative. Cahill’s democratizing ideas on art were sparked by his experiences as an Icelandic immigrant and hobo in the Midwest and informed by the theories of Progressive era philosophers including John Dewey and John Cotton Dana. The FAP, in addition to employing prominent artists such as Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, sponsored local and national exhibitions and established thousands of local art centers, including the renowned Harlem Community Art Center. These accomplishments laid the groundwork for the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and success of the post-war American art market.
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Keywords: Abstract Expressionism; Holger Cahill (1887–1960); New Deal; Works Progressive Administration Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP)

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 3, 2018

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