Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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The Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project was one of several programs that Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration established to aid artists during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The purpose of the Federal Art Project, operating from mid-1935 through mid-1943, was to employ artists, who were on relief rolls, in the creation of art, in art education, in community service, and on research projects. Folk art expert Holger Cahill, who managed this large program, believed it could demonstrate the government's commitment to the art community, give artists a sense of participation in American life, and provide the public a stake in American art. Administrators in Oklahoma included University of Oklahoma faculty member Homer Heck, who served as state project director, artists Nan Sheets and Maurice DeVinna, Jr., who were named Heck's assistants, and art professor Oscar Jacobson, who became an informal art advisor. The type and quality of art produced in a given state or region depended on the number and capabilities of the artists living there. Committees of local artists and critics, or sometimes the state director, decided who would be hired as well as the types of art programs considered appropriate for a particular city or town.

Although the national art project emphasized art production, in Oklahoma that effort represented a relatively small part of the program's body of work. State and regional artists did create a body of small easel works, which were acquired by universities, tribal centers, and museums when the program was liquidated. In addition, muralists received a few commissions in the state, including Texas artist Ruth Augur, who painted a series of historical murals on the walls of the Garfield County courthouse in Enid. The most ambitious art production enterprise funded by the Art Project in Oklahoma, however, was its silk-screen program, for which artists produced thousands of posters and other items for civic, state, and federal organizations. In the art project's later years the silk-screen program became particularly important in the production of defense materials for World War II.

The Federal Art Project's greatest achievement in Oklahoma was the establishment of the Oklahoma Art Center in Oklahoma City and numerous smaller centers around the state. Nan Sheets played a pivotal role in developing the center in Oklahoma City, and Maurice DeVinna, Jr., served as coordinator of the extension centers. The Oklahoma City center offered free art classes for adults and children, provided exhibits of art work, established a research division, and developed a library. It sponsored regular guest lectures that attracted large public audiences and gathered information about state artists for public use. The Oklahoma City center successfully met the project goal of integrating art with community life through its education and exhibition program.

It remained a challenge, however, for the art center and the extension galleries to retain enough qualified, relief-certified, artist-teachers; therefore, the quality of instruction varied from region to region. It became necessary at times to bring teachers to Oklahoma from other states to provide instruction, and many artists served in multiple capacities, as teachers, public lecturers, and administrators, to keep the program intact. The smaller centers were often unable to support a full range of activities but provided limited classes and exhibitions. Local art associations and other community groups in Altus, Bristow, Claremore, Clinton, Cushing, Edmond, Marlow, Okmulgee, Ponca City, Sapulpa, Shawnee, Skiatook, and Stillwater sponsored and supported their community centers and, with DeVinna's assistance, promoted their activities. Many, though not all, Oklahoma towns welcomed these efforts to promote the arts and provide employment for relief artists. In June 1939 the Daily Oklahoman reported that the Oklahoma art project had a monthly payroll of $1,834 disbursed to twenty-eight individuals.

The Federal Art Project lost stature and funding when an administrative reorganization of the programs took place in Washington in 1939 and when the House Un-American Activities Committee heard testimony against the cultural projects. Soon after that, the nation turned its attention to international events. By 1942 the only viable galleries, in Oklahoma City, Edmond, and Claremore, shifted their focus to exhibits and activities that supported the war effort. Still, the legacy of the Federal Art Project in Oklahoma is substantial. While art production was modest, the strong program of art education, reproduction, and exhibition at the art center in Oklahoma City brought the state to the attention of national officials. Unemployed artists found much needed work as teachers and administrators and established new relationships with their communities. Citizens in many small towns gained access to art activities, and libraries, schools, museums, universities, and colleges acquired original art.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Nicholas A. Calcagno, New Deal Murals in Oklahoma: A Bicentennial Project (Miami, Okla.: Pioneer Printing, Inc., 1976). Belisario R. Contreras, Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art (Lewisburg, Va.: Bucknell University Press, 1983). William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origins and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969). Richard D. McKinzie, The New Deal for Artists (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973). Francis V. O'Connor, comp., Art for the Millions: Essays From the 1930s By Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973). John Franklin White, Art in Action: American Art Centers and the New Deal (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987).

Sally Bradstreet Soelle

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