The New Deal and the Arts in Seattle (1933-1939)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 7/01/2021
  • Essay 21265
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During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government took unprecedented steps to support the visual arts, music, writing, and theater. Separate agencies dedicated to each were established under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in August 1935. Born during a time of extreme crisis and never entirely free of politics, they nonetheless changed the relationship between government and the arts, to the lasting benefit of the nation.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression brought America and most of the industrialized world to the brink of economic and societal collapse. On October 24, 1929, just seven weeks after closing at 381.2, its highest level ever, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 11 percent of its value in one trading session, known ever since as Black Thursday. On Black Monday, October 28, the decline was nearly 13 percent, on Tuesday nearly 12 percent. By mid-November the Dow had lost almost half of its value. That was only the beginning; it didn't hit bottom until July 8, 1932, when it closed at $41.22, barely 10 percent of its high point in 1929.

Credit froze, banks called in loans, industrial activity dwindled, and unemployment soared to levels not seen before or since. The Dust Bowl, a man-made climatic disaster that started in 1930, made matters even worse. A severe drought hit the Great Plains, and overfarmed and overgrazed topsoil simply blew away, sweeping across the land in ominous gritty clouds that turned day to night. More than a half-million men, women, and children were uprooted, with most heading west.

Political Paralysis

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) became America's president in March 1929, seven months before the Wall Street collapse began. A rock-ribbed Republican, he was ill-equipped to meet the unprecedented challenges of the Great Depression. His confidence in the ability of capitalistic, free-market forces to solve the financial crisis was misplaced, and his belief that direct government aid to businesses and individuals would discourage innovation and a healthy work ethic was naive. Four years of inaction by Hoover and a Republican-controlled Congress convinced many that government was simply incapable of taking effective measures. By 1932 panic and despair in equal measure gripped the nation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1932 the Democratic Party chose New York's governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), as its candidate for president. In May 1932, while campaigning for the nomination, Roosevelt offered a radically different approach:

"The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something" ("Address at Oglethorpe ...").

In the closing lines of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention three months later, Roosevelt coined a phrase for what was to follow: "I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people" ("Franklin D. Roosevelt Speeches ..."). The Democrats swept the elections, winning the presidency and both houses of Congress. Within hours of taking office on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt, true to his word, began trying some things.

First Things First

By March 1933 the nation's unemployment rate had reached 24.9 percent, but Roosevelt's first priority was to restore the public's confidence in the U.S. banking system. On March 6, just two days after his inauguration, he proclaimed a week-long "Bank Holiday" during which no banking activities could take place. This stopped an accelerating surge of withdrawals by frightened depositors. On March 9 Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, which helped restore public confidence. When the banks reopened four days later, many who had withdrawn their savings lined up to redeposit them.

More than one-third of the nation's counted unemployed were under age 25. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was established on April 5, 1933, to employ men between the ages of 18 and 25 in America's forests and parks. They were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was to be sent home to support their families. More than 3 million men were enrolled in the CCC between 1933 and 1942, when World War II demanded a different allocation of manpower.

Aid to the Arts

In May 1933 Roosevelt appointed Harry Hopkins (1890-1946), a social worker originally from Iowa, to oversee the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), which would provide direct relief to those unemployed who didn't qualify for the CCC. But a question soon arose: Since most artists by definition had no "jobs" to lose, should the government extend aid to them as well? A pithy comment by Hopkins quickly put the matter to rest: "Hell, they've got to eat just like other people!" ("Art of the New Deal"). Hopkins's expansive view of the responsibilities of government during crises would have profound and far-reaching consequences, and the seminal Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), administered by the U.S. Treasury Department, was the pilot program.

Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana comprised the 16th Region under the PWAP. The program ran only from December 8, 1933, to June 30, 1934, but in that short span employed 3,749 artists across the nation to produce 15,663 works that were displayed in schools and local, state, and federal facilities. "Art" was defined broadly, embracing everything from Navajo blankets to murals, sculptures, carvings, lithographs, and nearly 4,000 paintings.

The PWAP in Seattle

According to a closing report prepared for the treasury department, the PWAP employed about 75 artists and craftsman in Washington, including 50 from Seattle. Among the works permanently displayed in the city were two carved white-cedar panels by Ivan Marion Kelez (1907-1965). One, depicting the Denny Party's arrival at Alki Point in November 1851, was placed in Alki Elementary School. The second, a gathering of children from all nations, was to be "placed in the entranceway of a particularly cosmopolitan school" ("Needy Artists ..."). Sculptor James A. Wehn (1882-1973) produced a bronze bust of Seattle pioneer David S. "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873) for display at Seattle's Harborview County Hospital.

Although the participating artists are known, most of records detailing their works or tracing what became of those works did not survive. It is known that they included "murals in the Women's Recreation Building and the Oceanographic Building at the University of Washington; an extensive marine-life diorama for the University Museum; paintings for a Seattle senior citizens home; iron gates for a memorial gateway to the South Park playfield in Seattle; samples of early American weaving from the southern and eastern United States for the state school system; wood carvings of mountains and other nature scenes by a 'young Norwegian' in Tacoma; and nursery-school-themed art for government-run daycare centers" (Mahoney).

Several PWAP artists and craftspeople who lived in Seattle already had some repute in their respective fields, while others later found success. Guy Anderson (1906-1998) and Morris Graves (1910-2001) were among the founders of the art movement later named the Northwest School. Other notables were Jacob Elshin (1892-1976), Kamekichi Tokita (1897-1948), Kenjiro Nomura (1896-1956), Elizabeth Curtis (1873-1946), Wendell Corwin Chase (1897-1988), and Eustace Paul Ziegler (1881-1969). Ernest Norling (1892-1974) alone produced 55 watercolors and pencil sketches of life in the CCC camps that were shown briefly in Seattle, then placed in a permanent exhibit in Washington D.C. One of his paintings, The Timber Bucker, was chosen by Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) to hang in the White House.

The Significance of the PWAP

The PWAP program lasted barely six months, but it "fundamentally re-orient[ed] the relationship of artists to government and of art to the average American" ("The Public Works of Art Project"). Never before had the federal government directly supported art, much less individual artists, to any significant degree. The works that resulted exposed millions of people to things they otherwise may never have seen. A New York art historian, Francis O'Connor (b. 1937), has written, "at the time it was a revelation to many people in America that the country even had artists in it" ("1934: The Art of the New Deal").

Locally, a writer for The Seattle Times lauded the impact of the PWAP:

"In the future's estimate of the New Deal, possibly no one effort of amelioration will prove more interesting and more revolutionary in its cultural effects than the Public Works of Art Project.

"In December, 1933, it may be recorded, the United States Government made the discovery that artists are people and needed the succor and help given to other groups of workers during the worst depression in modern history. In becoming a patron of art, the United States took a new step in the annals of democracy. The result: Some 3,000 needy artists and artisans, living in every section of the country, were set to work recording in their own media, and with complete freedom of expression, various phases of the American scene ...

"From this act on the part of the American government dates the great renaissance of art in the United States.

"So future historians may write!" ("Needy Artists ...).

The Treasury Programs

The PWAP's end in June 1934 caused a brief hiatus in federal aid for the arts. In October that year the U.S Treasury Department created a Section of Painting and Sculpture (later "Section of Fine Arts"). Unlike the PWAP, it was competitive, and its purpose was to acquire for the federal government "the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test" ("Treasury Section of Fine Arts"). Judged competitions determined who qualified, and those chosen were paid a lump sum for their work. Several Seattle artists who had participated in the PWAP competed in this program, including Jacob Elshin (whose murals in Seattle's University Station post office still exist, although out of public view), and Ernest Norling. Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986), who had already won a degree of national renown, also took part.

A smaller program, the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), was created in August 1935 to beautify federal buildings, including such unlikely venues as prisons. During its short existence, TRAP subsidized a few artists from the Seattle area, among them Callahan and Two-vy-nah-up (1902-1986), also known as Julius Land Elk Twohy, a Uinta Ute artist who had moved to the city in the early 1930s. Callahan, Twohy, and Hovey Rich (1883-?) painted 10 mural panels for the Seattle Marine Hospital (now Pacific Tower), where seven of them still reside; the remainder were donated to the Museum of History and Industry.

The Alphabet Agencies

On May 6, 1935, a little less than a year after the PWAP ended, the Roosevelt administration created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), later renamed the Work Projects Administration. Under the initial leadership of the ubiquitous Harry Hopkins, its primary goal was to employ millions of the unemployed, mostly unskilled men, on public-works projects.

The WPA would be the largest of all New Deal relief programs, and it reached far beyond public works in the sense of such things as roads and bridges. Under its umbrella there sprouted a number of "alphabet agencies," so named for the initials they were known by. By August 1935 the WPA's Federal Project Number One (known as Federal One) had established five major divisions, four of which expanded the government's support for the arts: the Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Music Project (FMP), Federal Theatre Project (FTP), and Federal Writers' Project (FWP).

A Dearth of Documentation

When the PWAP ended in 1934, a final report identified the participating artists in Region 16 and their cities of residence. A volume published by the Tacoma Art Museum, New Deal Art in the Northwest, lists Washington artists who participated in the Federal Art Project, but not where they lived. Only 12 of the 50 Seattle participants in the PWAP also appear on the FAP roster, but there were two notable additions -- William Cumming (1917-2010) and Mark Tobey (1890-1976).

America entered World War II in December 1941, and in the rush to mobilize, many records of Federal One were lost or destroyed. Documentation of the programs in the Pacific Northwest "mostly vanished" (Bullock, 13), and the records that remained were scattered and fragmentary. Many of the details of Federal One's activities in Region 16 seem beyond recovery. Further muddling matters, much of the work produced by Seattle artists was sent to other cities, towns, and states. Conversely, much FAP art displayed in Seattle was produced by artists from other parts of the country. Typical was a showing in June 1937 at Frederick and Nelson department store in Seattle. It was part of the FAP's Index of American Design, which documented America's decorative art from the colonial period through the nineteenth century in detailed watercolor renderings and lithographs. Works by artists from 25 states depicted "furniture, textile and costume material, pottery and glass, and various types of folk art" ("WPA Art Work ..."). Only four Seattle artists were identified as participants -- Julius Ullman, Z. Vanessa Helder (1904-1968), Malcolm Roberts (1913-1990), and Alf Brunseth ("Artist's Work Draws Praise").

The Federal Art Project in Seattle

Hampered by turf battles between WPA officials and local FAP administrators, Washington was one of the last states to get the art program up and running. When it did, a number of public agencies and institutions were solicited to commission works. Seattle City Light financed a large scale model that featured "a real concrete Diablo Dam, a mountainside and a river bed, with running water" and "a model of an Indian winter village" ("Federal Art Project Makes ..."). Its fate seems to be unknown. City Light also commissioned a series of mural panels by Glenn Sheckels (1885-1939) for its downtown headquarters. These no longer exist, and there is no photographic record of them.

Seattle Public Schools also stepped up. In 1937 the prolific Jacob Elshin, working now under the FAP, created three murals for West Seattle High School that depicted scenes of pioneer life. These were subsequently relegated to storage, then rediscovered when the school was remodeled in 2000. Lantern slides, art and museum artifact reconstructions, and paintings by Agatha Kirsch (1879-1953) were also commissioned by Seattle Public Schools, but if they still exist their current locations are not known. Other works that can no longer be found are a linoleum mosaic and poster panels commissioned for the University District branch of The Seattle Public Library.

The University of Washington was the FAP's most generous partner. The works it commissioned included a mosaic mural for the Department of Chemistry, sculptures for Padelford Hall, a painting for the Art Building library by Elshin that has since disappeared, and several items for the campus's Washington State Museum (now the Burke Museum).

A product of the FAP that was simply too big and too rooted to be misplaced is still enjoyed by thousands of motorists every day -- the massive concrete relief panels that adorn the east portal of I-90's Mount Baker Tunnel. Seattle artist James FitzGerald (1910-1973) designed them using Northwest Coast Native American motifs, and they were cast by James Wehn, who earlier had sculpted the bust of Doc Maynard for the PWAP.

The Federal Theatre Project in Seattle

The Federal Theatre Project, another Harry Hopkins inspiration, was created to provide work for theater professionals during the Great Depression. Seattle's program was particularly active, and initially established three theater companies. The Federal Players (a white unit) and a Variety/Vaudeville unit were both sponsored and supervised by Glenn Hughes (1894-1964) of the UW School of Drama. Burton James (1888-1951) and Florence James (1892-1988), founders of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, sponsored the Negro Repertory Company (an African-American unit). A Children's Theatre company was added in 1937.

Seattle's Negro Repertory Company (NRC) was created in January 1936. It soon was lauded as among the best in the country, and considered by many to be the most interesting part of Seattle's FTP. Given the relatively unenlightened era, the efforts of both it and the Federal Players could at times generate racial and political controversy. The NRC's second production was Stevedore, a Marxist-themed play in which the protagonist, a Black dock worker, is framed for the rape of a white woman in retaliation for his union organizing efforts. His defender, a white union organizer, urges Blacks and whites to band together to fight "the real enemy -- capitalist exploitation" ("Playing with History"). Both the cast and the audience were interracial, and one night's performance was particularly noteworthy:

"As luck would have it, there was a longshoremen's strike during its run, and one night union members dominated the audience. They stormed onto the stage during the climactic scene when union men arrive to help the black workers defend themselves against a white mob" ("Playing with History").

The troupe's final show of 1936 was an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, an antiwar comedy about the title character's mission to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands until they made peace. It featured 50 performers and opened at the Moore Theatre on September 17, 1936, to "a wildly appreciative audience of 1,000" ("Negro Repertory Company"). But it closed the following night, allegedly for bawdy content, but more likely because Seattle theater owners put pressure on the WPA to shut down a hit play that threatened their profits.

It was estimated that up to 5 percent of Seattle's Black residents worked for the NRC as paid actors, technicians, and volunteers. Between 1936 and 1939 they staged 15 plays, including such non-controversial fare as Androcles and the Lion and The Taming of the Shrew. Seattle's Negro Repertory Company was one of the indisputable triumphs of the Federal Theatre Project.

Living Newspapers

Greater controversy in both Seattle and elsewhere was generated by a few of the FTP's Living Newspaper productions, which dramatized current events and policy debates and occasionally wandered into advocacy for progressive solutions. A number were produced across the nation, but two had particular relevance in Seattle.

Seattle's first production under the Living Newspaper format, ­Power, opened at the Metropolitan Theatre on July 6, 1937. The play, directed by Florence James, addressed the struggles of the New Deal's Tennessee Valley Authority to establish a public power-utility company that would provide electricity more widely and at lower cost than privately owned utilities, who vigorously opposed the whole concept. The production was co-sponsored by Seattle City Light, which at the time was engaged in a prolonged competition with the conglomerate-owned Puget Power for control of the city's electric utilities. Although enthusiastically received by the public, both of the city's leading newspapers lambasted it as pure anti-business propaganda, and the controversy soon led Burton and Florence James to resign from the FTP.

On May 23, 1938, the Seattle FTP opened another Living Newspaper production, One-Third of a Nation, the title taken from a line in Roosevelt's second inaugural speech: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished" ("Franklin D. Roosevelt: Second Inaugural Address"). The play examined the history and condition of slums in large cities and emphasized the need for housing reform. The subject's timeliness and relevance to Seattle could not have been greater -- just one month before the play opened, the city council unanimously adopted a resolution declaring its intent to create a housing authority once the state legislature granted the necessary powers. That was done, and on March 13, 1939, the Seattle Housing Authority was established. It immediately began to develop the Yesler Terrace public-housing project, one of the first in the nation, and the first in which race was not a qualifying factor.

The Living Newspaper program stirred up a lot of political opposition in Congress when its plays advocated progressive solutions to national dilemmas, as was the case with Power and One-Third of a Nation. Despite the efforts of its many defenders, funding for all Federal One programs was cut off in 1939. The FTP was terminated on June 30 that year, sending theater workers back to the unemployment lines.

The Federal Music Project in Seattle

Few readily available sources other than a handful of newspaper articles document the activities of the Federal Music Project in Seattle. Its primary achievement appears to have been the formation of a 28-piece symphonic band directed by John Spargur (1879-1956), formerly of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It was announced in The Seattle Times on January 15, 1936, that the band "will be heard in public performances in Seattle within ten days ..." ("W.P.A. Band ..."). The musicians were paid $94 a month.

Beginning on Sunday, August 2, 1936, the Federal Music Project Symphonic Band opened a series of free, open-air concerts in Woodland Park, followed by shorter performances during the following week at four playfields around Seattle. It later performed several short concerts as introductions to plays produced by the Federal Theatre Project. It often played on weekdays for fear that free weekend concerts would draw audiences away from commercial musical events performed by union musicians. It also staged concerts at Woodland Park's parking lots where the disabled and the elderly could enjoy the performances without leaving their cars.

In November 1938 the Symphonic Band provided musical accompaniment to the Negro Repertory Company's staging of An Evening with Dunbar, setting to music the works of Black poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906). Howard Biggs (1916-1999), a UW student and member of the NRC, composed much of the music for the show, and The Seattle Times reviewer wrote, "'An Evening With Dunbar' is one of the most colorful and musical shows yet produced by the Negro company" ("Negro Players Open Folk Opera ..."). Biggs went on to forge a successful career as a pianist, songwriter, and arranger

In May 1937 it was announced that the national director of the FMP, Nikolai Sokoloff (1886-1965), would take a leave of absence from his post to conduct the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, beginning in November that year. He would lead the symphony until 1941, never returning to his federal position. But he did submit a report in 1939 describing the successes of the FMT and the project's broad reach. Nationwide since October 1935, there had been public performances of 6,772 compositions written by 2,034 American composers. FMP symphony orchestras had performed 16,359 programs to an aggregate audience of 12,244,000 listeners. His report concluded, "There is evidence of a great eagerness for music on the part of the American people" ("Sokoloff Gives W.P.A. Report ..."),

The Federal Writers' Project

The Federal Writers' Project was created to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Its chief undertaking was the American Guide Series, a comprehensive survey of the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. It also gathered tales of rural and urban folklore, first-person narratives (called life histories) describing the feelings and experiences of men and women during the Depression, and narrative accounts of the pre-Emancipation lives of former slaves.

The FWP was both the least-documented and most fractious of the Federal One programs in Washington state. The trouble started as early as April 1936 when Dorothy Edmondson, assistant state director of the American Guide project, resigned, claiming that much of what had been written was "pure fiction" ("High WPA Official ..."). She may have had a point -- before the dust settled, a massive three-million-word compilation was reduced to 300,000 words.

On February 17, 1939, the WPA announced that an investigation had disproved accusations by State Senator Mary Farquharson (1901-1982), a liberal Democrat, that the FWP in Seattle was infiltrated by Communists. But feelings ran high -- the next day police were called to break up a fight at the FWP's Seattle office.

The controversy over Communist infiltration persisted. After Congress terminated funding for Federal One in September 1939, the Federal Writers' Project was renamed the Federal Writers' Program. The federal government still paid administrative costs, but the program now had to find local sponsors and financing. Matters came to a head in March 1940 when Senator Farquharson opposed King County sponsorship, alleging again Communist influence. Despite Farquharson's objections, on March 7 the King County commissioners voted to offer emergency sponsorship to keep the FWP alive. But two hours earlier, the acting state WPA director had terminated the program, saying "there has been too much bickering over it in the past, and too much criticism" ("WPA Director Ends ..."). The Washington State Historical Society reluctantly stepped in as sponsor to ensure that the Washington contribution to the American Guide Series could be completed, which it was in 1941.


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