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Legacy of WPA's Massive Relief Program Endures 50 Years Later


The Music Project as well exposed America's untapped talent. Besides bringing cheer to a nation desperately in need of it, it produced 5,300 original works composed by 1,500 WPA musicians, an undreamed of creative opulence. Musicians who got their start in the WPA wound up in a dozen of the nation's symphony orchestras, two as conductors. Indeed, the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra began as a WPA group.

Federal One's even more conspicuously successful effort was the Federal Arts Project. It was, says historian William McDonald, "in material, size and cultural character unprecedented in this or any other nation."

The centerpiece was its murals program. Private patronage had dried up for America's artists, but walls were free and paint was cheap. Murals blossomed in hospitals, schools and public buildings, from the airport in Cincinnati to the post office in Boone, N.C. In all, more than 6,000 artists, eager to earn the standard rate of $23.86 a week, went to work in all 48 states.

Well, 46. The WPA director in Vermont believed that needy artists ought to do manual labor, "something worthwhile." The Texas director was afraid the artists might try to sneak some subversive message on a Texas wall. Both refused to participate.

The murals, though, tended more toward heroic themes and local history, such as the mural in the Boone post office. Unlike the surviving Boone mural, others, neglected over the past half century, are long gone.

Even those, however, seem to have taken on the fascination of sunken treasure, especially if the artists who painted them became famous.

It was known, for example, that Arshile Gorky, a premier American painter of the day, had painted 10 panels for the Newark Airport. Two of them have been recovered under 14 layers of paint.

A recent survey by New York's Municipal Art Society found that only about 200 WPA murals remain of more than 500 commissioned, and some of those too far gone to restore. But others were deemed well worth saving and the society is raising money to do that. One, by Ilya Bolotowsky, had been painted over five to seven times in a hospital on Roosevelt Island. Another, by Charles Alston, one of the black artists who got his start in the WPA, is peeling off the wall in Harlem Hospital. Both will be saved.

The Art Project produced its own long list of illustrious names: Jackson Pollock, Ben Shahn, Willem de Kooning, Anton Refregier, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Aaron Bohrod and Stuart Davis.

So did the Federal Writers Project. Future Nobelist Saul Bellow worked for the WPA. So did Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren and Arna Bontemps. Richard Wright wrote by day for the WPA, which sustained him while he wrote "Native Son" by night.

The Writers Project is most remembered for the detailed guidebooks for every U.S. state and territory. But its 6,000 writers also gathered first-person narratives of more than 10,000 Americans, people who likely never would have left a record, including the life stories of more than 1,000 former slaves.

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