The Federal Art Project (FAP) and its short-lived predecessor the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) produced more than 200,000 works of art across the United States during some of the most troublesome years of the Great Depression: 1934 to 1942. These programs were intended to employ out-of-work artists, who produced art work in a large variety of mediums and materials, from paintings and sculpture, to posters, coins and murals. In Connecticut, the state was divided into three districts – New Haven, Hartford and New London – which were managed by appointees who, in addition to their own day jobs, were responsible for administering federal funds, identifying and managing both the project locations and the artists selected to undertake the commission. Finding projects was also a challenge, because through federal funds paid for the artist’s labor, funds for materials and supplies had to be provided by the commissioner, or project donor. New Haven served as the state headquarters, with an office located at 63 Dwight Street, which also contained space for a “Federal Art Gallery” where works by the FAP artists were displayed.
The New Haven district (which covered all of New Haven and Middlesex counties) the city itself ended up with more than 26 works of art, many more than other town in the district, rivaled only by Hartford. In what seems an unlikely town-gown partnership today, staff of the Yale University Art Gallery, including Theodore Sizer and Wayland Williams, became the voluntary PWAP/FAP administrators of the New Haven district projects, most of which were for municipal buildings. The town-gown connection did not end there – interestingly, many of the artists who benefitted from the PWAP/FAP program were graduates of the Yale School of Fine Art, indicating the severe state of the economy that affected everyone. From a brief review of the artists associated with the PWAP/FAP in New Haven, there are artists from many ethnic backgrounds, including a sizable Italian-American contingency.
New Haven Mayor John W. Murphy was an advocate of the New Deal programs, who welcomed the federal funds that put 3,900 New Haveners to work in 1933. The mayor commissioned the first work of art under the PWAP – his own portrait, which remains in City Hall today. There are 24 PWAP/FAP works of art extant and in situ in New Haven, plus one major mural cycle that is currently rolled in storage at United Illuminating. At least ten more “major” works of art (murals and sculpture) were created and installed in New Haven under PWAP/FAP, but these have since either been destroyed or are missing. The majority of the extant works are murals, though status as a mural, an architectural feature of a building, did not preclude a work of art from destruction or neglect, considering that at least five WPA mural cycles in New Haven are no longer extant, including the Life of Hiawatha at Edgewood School, the Roger Sherman murals at the Roger Sherman School, the Christopher Columbus murals at the Christopher Columbus Academy, the Treasure Island murals at Zunder School and the Golden Gate to Knowledge murals, once located at Ivy Street School.
The subject matter for the majority of New Haven PWAP/FAP work lies in two areas, both intended to reinforce the continuity of a value system in which particular events, places and people were recognized for contributions to the development of New Haven and the country. Thus works of art that memorialized great New Haven citizens, such as Roger Sherman, Eli Whitney, Corporal Timothy Ahearn, Nathan Hale and Governor Wilbur Cross, are complemented by works of art that memorialized important New Haven events and places, including the flight of the Regicides to West Rock, the Amistad, Demanding the Keys to the Powderhouse and the Founding of Yale College (now university). The focus on New Haven specific legend and lore was codified towards the end of the 1930s due to the city’s substantial Tercentenary celebrations in 1939. The extent of ephemeral works of art produced with PWAP/FAP funds for the Tercentenary will probably never be known, though one major work has survived: a mural cycle by Hugo Ohlms, which was originally placed on the façade of Malley’s Department Store on Chapel Street, and later installed in two separate areas of Troup School on Edgewood Avenue.
Most artists were assigned to specific projects by Sizer, though larger commissions such as the Children’s Room of the New Haven Public Library was done through competition. Sizer, the person who shaped New Haven’s PWAP/FAP art projects more than any other, had a particular vision for what should be produced.
The status and success of the Federal Art Project did not go unchallenged in the realm of the fine arts nor in politics. The quality of the work was uneven, many did not feel that government funds should be expended towards the creation of fine art, and the administrative challenges of keeping multiple projects and many artists working on a week-by-week basis was considerable.
Fortunately, in New Haven, most of the remaining PWAP/FAP/WPA murals have been conserved, thanks to the City’s extensive school construction and reconstruction project. But, as indicated above, many have been lost or need conservation. The PWAP/FAP work in New Haven is, overall, the largest collection of visual art that refers directly to New Haven’s identity – its history, people and places – during a transformative era of social change.
This work was supported by a generous grant from The Community Investment Act of the State of Connecticut, administered by the Historic Preservation Division of the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism: