Marks of Respect: Labor and Social Justice in Depression Era, Selections from the Marian and Belverd Needles Collection

January 8 – March 15

/ 2004

Like other Americans during the Great Depression, printmakers grappled with economic hardship; these prints reveal their complex experience and their aspirations for change.

The stock market crash of October 1929 brought one of the largest economic crises the nation has ever experienced, and the depression that followed created severe poverty and unemployment. While the event certainly impacted every facet of society, the economic fallout hit artists hard. The traditional systems of patronage were not adequate to sustain artistic practice.

By April of 1935 things began to turn around. The massive, federally funded system of relief known as the Works Project Administration (WPA) provided jobs and paychecks to many sectors of the labor force. In autumn of 1935, the Roosevelt administration recognized the needs of artists and created a branch of WPA called The Federal Art Project (FAP). The program put thousands of artists to work creating pieces primarily intended to decorate public institutions.

The Project consisted of four major divisions: easel painting, mural painting, sculpture, and graphic arts (which included printmaking). At its peak the graphic arts division employed about 790 artists in 36 cities, who worked to produce approximately 239,000 prints, an extraordinary amount of work for the eight-year existence of the program. Print workshops were opened in major cities throughout the country, and they provided the artists access to equipment and technical guidance from master printers.

Many of the works displayed in this exhibition were created on the Project presses. All of them survive as living documents of the history of the Great Depression, and allow us a rare glimpse into the hardships of the time. Without the support of WPA, artists driven into other work would have left no visual legacy of that experience. Creative expression can be most necessary under desperate circumstances.