Funding art during the Great Depression: New Deal-era prints from Cleveland

Explore what artmaking was like during the Great Depression through a collection of government-funded prints from the Cleveland chapter of the Federal Art Project (1935-1943)

Akron Art Museum

Written by Katie DiDomenico

Depression (1935/1939) by Frank Daniel FousekAkron Art Museum

How artists prevailed during the depression

Although millions of American workers lost their jobs during this difficult time, thousands of artists, earned employment through the government-funded Federal Art Project (FAP).

Frank Daniel Fousek’s image of a desolate farm landscape conveys the feelings of melancholy and dejection brought on by the Great Depression. 

Fousek earned employment through the government-funded Federal Art Project (FAP), a branch of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to help get the population back to work.

Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother) (March 1936) by Dorothea LangeThe J. Paul Getty Museum

How Federal Art Project started

The U.S. stock market crash of 1929 initiated a 10 year period of worldwide economic downturn known as the Great Depression. At its worst point in 1933, over 15 million Americans were unemployed—about a quarter of the nation’s workforce.

Franklin D Roosevelt (1935-01-01) by Hulton ArchiveGetty Images

Government solutions

With so many people out of work, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped in with a plan to relieve the financial hardships facing the country. 

Among the programs and reforms of his “New Deal” for economic recovery, Roosevelt set up a government agency titled the Works Progress Administration (WPA). 

This agency organized a series of public works projects, including infrastructural improvements and new construction of public buildings, putting over 8.5 million Americans to work during its existence from 1935–1943.

Lost Colony Celebration Roaanoake No. Caro A-1-2 Uncle Jeff Hayman Ft. Raliegh Caretaker 3-5 Wpa Workers Building President Stand B-1 Wpa Workers Building President Stand 2-3 Ccc Boys Work On Fencing 4-5 Memorial Marker At Old Fort (1937-08)LIFE Photo Collection

Putting artists to work

Among these projects were four separate art programs, designed to provide economic relief to struggling artists and craftspeople. Each of these programs had slightly different goals and levels of quality in mind for the art produced, much of which still exists today. 

These programs not only provided economic relief to struggling artists, but also cultivated a sense of pride in American art, which until then had always seemed to defer to the dominance of Europe’s artistic trends.

Pennant:Cleveland, Ohio (1946-1956)The Strong National Museum of Play

Cleveland as a center of arts

The FAP established centers in 16 cities across the U.S., with Cleveland as one of them. During the eight years the FAP was active, it employed over 10,000 artists, including some 350 Clevelanders who made up 80% of Ohio’s FAP artists.

In order to strengthen ties between artists and their communities, many FAP artworks were circulated among local schools, libraries, and municipal buildings for educational purposes and to create an art-minded public.

Train to be a nurse's aide Phone your boro Civilian Defense Volunteer Office. (1941) by Federal Art ProjectNational Women’s History Museum

Printmaking is one of the artistic mediums best suited for public education and outreach due to its lower cost, easily transportable products, and capacity for making multiple copies that can be widely distributed and exhibited. 

The printmaking teams employed approximately four times as many artists as the mural painting division. The Cleveland FAP printmakers produced more than 6,000 printing plates and 150,000 individual prints.

Civil Works Administration Workers at City Lakefront (1934) by Sheffield Harold KagyAkron Art Museum

What types of prints did they make?

The themes of FAP prints from the Cleveland area included the following subjects: glorification of the working man, troubles of the working man, effects of and scenes of the Great Depression, Cleveland and regional history, and a celebration of the arts themselves.

Structural Steel Workers on the Cleveland Post Office During Construction (1934) by Russell T. LimbachAkron Art Museum

Building the city

Part of a series depicting the 1934 construction of a post office in the Terminal Tower complex in downtown Cleveland, Russell T. Limbach shows steelworkers securing the frame of the building.

Terminal Tower was the largest building outside of New York City at the time, a testament to Cleveland’s wealth and renown. Other prints in this series show plasterers, cement pourers, and bricklayer. 

The series was meant to show hope for labor at a time when many Americans were unemployed.

Decayed Glory (1935) by George Vander SluisAkron Art Museum

Artists grapple with hardship in the community

Not all were lucky enough to find employment. George Vander Sluis’s Decayed Glory depicts two workers in conversation in front of a ramshackle building that was once been a restaurant, as indicated by the sign on the side of the building—“M&B Eat.” 

The restaurant’s windows are now boarded up. While smoke billows from several chimneys in the factory in the background, it appears largely abandoned as well. Perhaps the restaurant once served a lively crowd of factory workers, now dwindled to only two.

Barn and Tress (1937) by Anthony T. FerenchAkron Art Museum

Challenges in the countryside

Anthony T. Ferench’s Barn and Trees offers a similar image of desolation. Barns and farmers had once served as symbols of American industriousness and hard work. When the Depression hit, the agricultural sector suffered particularly hard. 

Prices for crops and livestock drastically dropped and bankrupt farmers abandoned their farms and seeking work in other places. Ferench’s image presents a bleak landscape, dead trees standing like haunting reminders of a once-prosperous former life.

The Worker (1935) by Kálmán Matyas Bela Kubinyi,Akron Art Museum

The plight in cities

City-dwellers did not fare much. Many of the once bustling factories closed, leaving millions of industrial laborers without jobs. Before the stock market crash, Cleveland boasted one of the country’s highest percentages of workers employed in industry, second only to Detroit.

By 1933, approximately 50% of industrial workers in Cleveland were out of a job. This situation is reflected in Kálmán Kubinyi’s print The Worker, which shows a lone worker sitting on the ground in front of an imposing factory. Feelings of loss and dejection fill the scene.

Employment Office (1937) by Jolán Gross-BettelheimAkron Art Museum

Government help

During the Great Depression, masses of people swarmed breadlines and soup kitchens, and employment offices, like the one in Jolán Gross Bettelheim print, saw unprecedented numbers of people come through their doors. 

Gross-Bettelheim’s print centers on three figures in the employment office—two men and a woman, all appearing around middle-age. 

With the status of labor so uncertain, people could often only find work for a day at a time and had to return constantly to the employment office in search of their next job.

Mayfield Hill, Cleveland (1937) by Ora ColtmanAkron Art Museum

Documenting the city

Many artists chose to focus on imagery that would instill a sense of pride in one’s hometown or region by depicting rich histories and welcoming neighborhoods. One such artist was Ohio native Ora Coltman. 

Visible in the print are the balconied apartment buildings and small shops that can still be found in the neighborhood today, as well as Holy Rosary Church on the left, known for drawing dense crowds to its annual Feast of the Assumption. 

Not much has changed in this area of Cleveland even eight decades later.

Public Square, Old Cleveland (1936) by Herman KepetsAkron Art Museum

Depicting history

This print by Herman Kepets depicts downtown Cleveland’s Public Square as it would have appeared in 1836, the year of Cleveland’s incorporation as a city. 

Kepets’s print depicts a time when Cleveland counted only a few thousand in its population and the central area of Public Square was designed as a New England-style public meeting space. 

This print offers a calm, provincial scene that is not at all indicative of the sprawling metropolis that Cleveland would become in the following century.

To Uncertainty (1935) by Honoré GuilbeauAkron Art Museum

Vibrant life

The printmaker Honoré Guilbeau celebrated the arts. Guilbeau had early aspirations as a dancer. She often featured dancers and theater scenes in her works. In this print, Guilbeau depicts three dancers frozen in somewhat enigmatic positions. 

The figures could all represent the same dancer at different moments in time as she sweeps through her choreography. As a dancer herself, Guilbeau may have been intrigued by the challenge of depicting the movement of dance in the static visual medium of printmaking.

Melting Pot (1935) by Dorothy Rutka (aka Dorothy Rutka Porter),Akron Art Museum

Vibrant communities

These prints provide invaluable documentation of life, society, and culture at a time of crisis. Not only did the FAP put artists to work, it also supplemented educational outreach programs that sought to cultivate knowledge and appreciation of the arts within the general public.

The FAP program reminds us today that even in the most challenging of times, art can offer a signal of hope and comfort for both maker and viewer.

Credits: Story

The story authored by Katie DiDomenico.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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