Works by artists who were supported by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) realized $460,490 at the auction block in a curated sale at New York’s Swann Auction Galleries. “The Artists of the WPA” on February 4 encompassed paintings, prints, photographs, posters, sculptures, medallions, and mural studies among other ephemera, providing insight into some of the varied art projects that the United States government sponsored in its sprawling effort to employ out-of-work artists and foster a national culture around art from 1935 to 1943.
Many of the works in the sale were made in association with the Federal Art Project (FAP), the most ambitious of the New Deal programs devoted to art. Founded in 1935 under the WPA, the program provided employment for more than 10,000 artists of varying skill levels and backgrounds from across the nation, including artists in underserved communities such as Harlem and Chicago’s South Side. In addition to supporting public art projects and art-making practices across media, the FAP funded arts education and research, community art centers, exhibition programming, and an illustrated archive of American decorative art.
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The preponderance of prints in the sale nods to the Federal Art Project’s particularly adamant support of printmaking, which was viewed as an appropriately democratic art form. The organization’s Graphic Arts Division employed printmakers throughout the country and opened a large print workshop in New York City that witnessed the production of about 75,000 prints and introduced many younger artists to the medium. The prints on offer at Swann were led by a 1943 lithograph by Norman Lewis, “Comrades,” which sold for $9,375, surpassing its high estimate of $7,000, and Grant Wood’s “Tree Planting Group,” which realized $8,750.
The sale also included documentary photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and John Vachon, some of the best-known photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the effects of drought and economic depression on rural and migrant laborers. Appearing in popular magazines like LIFE, the FSA photographs made the plight of these communities and the necessity of federal funding widely known. A group of 38 vintage photographs by Vachon, who worked for the FSA as a messenger before joining the agency’s photography department, garnered $37,500, over five times its high estimate.
Swann Modern & Post-War Art director Harold Porcher, who is the specialist for the WPA sale, remarked to Hyperallergic: “The WPA projects, and the New Deal at large, is not just our nation’s history but a road map to show us that we can work together and overcome hardships as a nation. We are strongest in unity. Few of the artists of the WPA generation are still with us. Let us not forget them and their neighbors, and how they helped to usher us into the prosperous post-war era.”