The WPA poster program marked one of the most significant periods of graphic design in the United States.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), enacted in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression, was intended to stimulate the struggling economy through the creation of jobs. These jobs were far-reaching in scope and covered every aspect of the workforce, including the arts.
This was a revolutionary concept, given the fact that artists weren’t seen as essential workers. Nonetheless, by 1938, the Federal Arts Project (FAP), the visual arts subdivision of the WPA, “became the main employer of the nation’s artists,” according to Chris DeNoon in Posters of the WPA.
Suddenly, thousands of unemployed artists across 48 states were getting paid by the U.S. government to paint, sculpt, create lithographs, take photos, make woodcuts, and more.
These artists worked in tandem with others involved in public works projects who were making bridges, building schools, and paving roads (to name a few). In addition to employing artists, the program enacted over 100 community art centers around the country.
DeNoon wrote, “The art centers grew out of the democratic philosophy that the spiritual and aesthetic pleasures of art, rather than being reserved for an educated elite, should be available to the widest possible number of people.”
The WPA poster program grew out of the same philosophy.
Posters for the People
New York City became the de facto birthplace of the WPA poster program. In the 1930s, the city was viewed as the country’s foremost cultural hub, which naturally attracted artists of all kinds to live there. Hence, when the program started, there was no shortage of painters and illustrators ready to work.
Another major factor was that the mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, had unknowingly laid the groundwork for the FAP poster division a year prior through his own self-directed initiatives.
One of these initiatives was the so-called “Fish Tuesday,” which encouraged everyone in the city to eat seafood once a week in order to invigorate the local fishing economy. Hand-painted posters were produced to help advertise it.
Although the Mayor’s Poster Project was a success—ultimately providing a template for the FAP—the production method was inefficient. It was in need of a major overhaul for the kind of large-scale print runs the WPA poster program required.
Once Mayor La Guardia’s poster initiative merged with the Federal Arts Project in 1935, silkscreening soon replaced hand-painted posters as the go-to production method. This was mainly due to an artist named Anthony Velonis, who had experience with the process through two previous jobs: one creating display cards for a department store, the other manufacturing wallpaper.
Silkscreen at that time was known primarily as a commercial art form. Still, Velonis had seen its potential firsthand, and armed with that knowledge, he approached the poster division’s administrator, John Weaver, to pursue it.
He succeeded, and the time-consuming hand-painting process was soon replaced by silkscreening, which allowed up to 600 posters to be produced per day.
Moreover, the democratic ideals from which the program developed were echoed in the silkscreen process itself, which required a group of people to work together in tandem, each with a specific task, to achieve the desired result. It was a rare case where form, function, and process all went hand in hand.
In 1937, Velonis collated his knowledge of silkscreening into a pamphlet. Funded by the WPA, it was called, Problems of the Artist: Technique of the Silk Screen Process.
In it, he wrote: “Printing media must come to be regarded in exactly the same way as the painter esteems his canvas, paints, and brushes. The finished work must convey the feeling that the artist has a certain amount of intimacy with his printing medium, no matter how mechanical.”
With this, the transition of silkscreening from a machine-like commercial process to a refined artistic endeavor was underway.
Art for the Common Good
Under Velonis’s guidance, the WPA poster program hit its stride around 1938. Copies of his pamphlet were distributed to programs in other states, which were in the process of producing posters for various community needs.
The posters were used to advertise events, promote job opportunities, and educate the public about health-related issues. “See America First,” “Milk for Summer Thirst,” and “Stop the Spread of Syphilis” are just a few of the direct-action phrases that characterize WPA posters.
In the relatively brief period of the WPA’s life span, it is estimated that over 2 million posters were produced in the U.S. from 35,000 original designs.
However, due to the inherently disposable nature of the poster medium, only about 2,000 exist. Considering the sheer volume of posters made during those years, the consistently high quality and craftsmanship become even more incredible.
Some credit this to the non-commercial nature of the WPA program. The clients were not corporations needing to sell soap or toothpaste. Instead, they were government agencies whose primary goal was getting the message across clearly and directly.
To this end, the artists were given free reign to experiment with type, color, and composition. This freedom resulted in a creative renaissance, which was, ironically, backed by the slow and stodgy machinations of government.
Richard Floethe was also a major catalyst for the program’s success. Floethe became the administrator of New York City’s poster division in 1936, filling the position previously held by John Weaver.
An illustrator and designer by trade, he had studied at the Bauhaus in Germany alongside Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. Floethe saw the program as an opportunity “to improve the commercial poster and raise it to a true art form.”
From the beginning, he set out to construct a creatively-stimulating environment based on mutual encouragement, democratic collaboration, and healthy competition.
Decline of the WPA Poster Program
As early as 1936, some members of congress began voicing opposition to the WPA. They believed that paying artists was the epitome of wasteful spending; or that it wasn’t real work in the same vein as paving roads or laying bricks.
Additionally, there was growing suspicion about a left-leaning, Communist element within the FAP. The congressional opposition was spearheaded by Representative Martin Dies, whose House Investigation Committee attempted to end the programs.
Then, in 1938, a proposal to cut spending on the FAP gained traction within congress, forcing some state’s poster divisions to shut down due to lack of funds.
By the time the United States entered the war several years later, the diminished WPA program was absorbed by the Defense Department, and the focus shifted away from producing posters to more urgent matters related to the war effort.
Given the lasting cultural success of the WPA/FAP, one can’t help but speculate about the possibilities of sustained government backing of the arts.
After all, as this brief period showed, great things can happen when the two come together to serve a greater purpose.
Today, the program’s legacy lives on through books, exhibitions, and modern-day reinterpretations as more recent generations put their own unique spin on classical WPA poster design.
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