Supporting Art in Hard Times (January 2010)

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY
Visual Art 
27 January 2010

SUPPORTING ART IN HARD TIMES: PLUS, A SHOW OF KEY TAR HEEL ARTISTS 
Prints for the people
By Dave Delcambre

American Realism from the WPA Era
Adam Cave Fine Art
Through Feb. 16

More than 200,000 works of art were produced under the auspices of the famed Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) was founded in 1935 as an important plank of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and remained in existence until 1943. Several works produced under this regime can be seen this month in a print show on view at Adam Cave Fine Art.

By government mandate, the WPA bore the challenge of establishing a conceptual framework for art that suited American culture. In other words, it needed to be democratic and accessible, rather than theoretical or elitist. Accordingly, the FAP program is especially known for the myriad public art projects it supported, such as murals and posters placed in post offices, schools, libraries, hospitals and other public settings .

Less well known, however, is the large number of printmakers who participated in the program. Printmaking in the 1930s was an established popular form, and many viewers were already accustomed to handcrafted visual artwork. With this built-in audience in mind, the FAP began providing access to materials, presses, print workshop support and even educational assistance when needed. Printmaking is demanding, process-oriented and often a team effort; its resemblance to traditional guilds only aided the artists’ identification with their working-class subjects.

The printmakers found a kinship with workers who were struggling through the Depression. In this show, you can find images of a construction worker signaling a crane operator, steel workers riding a beam high above a New York skyline, a potter turning a bowl in the studio and farmers tending the rolling hills of their farmland. Well-known artists like Grant Wood, John Marin, Rockwell Kent and Thomas Hart Benton are represented, as well as less familiar names, such as Herschel Levit, Lawrence Kupferman and Reynold Weidenaar—whose image of a locomotive factory is jaw-dropping in its intricacy and line work and is, in fact, worth a visit by itself.

The show is timely with its overtones of WPA optimism situated within perilous economic times that echo our own—although today’s audiences might wonder where the optimism is now. Still, Raleigh is working to broaden the presence of art in the community, notably through its belated half-percent for public art initiative, which is already facing criticism in its association with the proposed $205 million Clarence E. Lightner Public Safety Center. Now is a time to consider what a show of Depression-era art has to tell us about the relationship between artists and their communities.

Back in the day, the FAP got it right. Would that today’s crisis were met with a similar largeness of spirit and purpose. Artists working today deserve the same assistance and opportunities provided in the Great Depression. The fact that we still celebrate the work of the WPA era shows what a worthwhile investment it was.

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