A New Deal for Illinois: The Federal Art Project Collection of Western Illinois University


In October 1929, the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The seismic effects of the crash quickly reached the Midwest, resulting in factory closings, massive unemployment and plummeting farm prices. As a major industrial and agricultural state, Illinois was especially hard hit by the economic crisis.

In response to the nation’s devastating financial hardship, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration created federal work relief programs, which included the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Established in 1934, the PWAP was the first government program in the United States to support art on a national scale, providing unemployed artists with wages and creative opportunities. In 1935, it was replaced by the larger Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (FAP/WPA).

TurzakRiverW.jpgAlthough the Depression was especially challenging for educational institutions, Western Illinois University (WIU, then operating as Western Illinois State Teachers College) received substantial funding from New Deal agencies to advance the college through campus building projects and student work study programs. These funds were obtained through the dedicated and skilled efforts of the college’s influential president, Walter P. Morgan.

Beginning in 1934, a unique federal arts program also provided support for the college to acquire New Deal art to adorn classrooms, hallways and other public spaces on campus. Increase Robinson and Theodora Pottle, two pioneering women in Illinois’ early 20th century art scene, planned these acquisitions. A prominent gallery dealer and painter in Chicago, Robinson served as director of the FAP in Illinois during the 1930s. Pottle, head of the WIU art department from 1928 to 1958, advised the institution on its FAP art collection until 1936 and was a strong advocate for public art throughout her career.

In contrast to the national scope of the Smithsonian Institution’s 1934 exhibition, A New Deal for Illinois examines New Deal art in the regional context of Chicago in the 1930s and in relation to the institutional history of WIU. The exhibition and accompanying catalog are the first scholarly studies to research the historical, socio-cultural and artistic factors associated with the formation of WIU’s FAP art collection.

Many of the artists in the collection were based in Chicago in the 1930s and actively participated in the city’s cosmopolitan and progressive urban arts community. The exhibition features works by such notable artists as Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Gertrude Abercrombie, Aaron Bohrod and Romolo Roberti, who were prominent in many of the innovative artistic movements of the 1930s, including Surrealism, Precisionism and Social Realism. WIU’s FAP art collection is particularly distinctive for the inclusion of a large number of women artists and African-American artists, reflecting the liberal democratic policies of the New Deal to promote social and economic equality during a period of profound adversity and turbulent cultural change.

A New Deal for Illinois: The Federal Art Project Collection of Western Illinois University was organized by the Western Illinois University Art Gallery. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Gregory Gilbert, associate professor of art history at Knox College and co-author of Harry Gottlieb: The Silkscreen and Social Concern in the WPA Era.

This exhibition is on view September 14, 2013 through January 5, 2014.


Sponsored by:     





Western Illinois University Foundation      BIll and Jo Sanders



images:
Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Jazz Singers, 1934, oil on canvas
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration
Commissioned through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP)


Charles Turzak, River and Canal Transportation, from the portfolio A History of Illinois in Woodcuts, 1933-34, woodcut
Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration
Commissioned through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP)