About this Exhibit
Rediscovering America
Celebrating The People
Work Pays America
Activist Arts
Useful Arts

Work Pays America 

We were all very ardent New Dealers and when we found [New Deal policies] reflected in the art programs we were even more enthusiastic.
-- Edward Biberman, New Deal artist

Most New Deal artists were grateful to President Roosevelt for giving them work and enthusiastically supported the New Deal's liberal agenda. MORE...

USA Work Program logo

"USA Work Program WPA"
By an unknown artist, 1936

National Archives, Publications of the U.S. Government
(Y3w 892 8w89)

"Leaning on a shovel" skit from Sing for Your Supper

"Leaning on a shovel" skit from New York City production of Sing for Your Supper New York City Federal Theatre Project, WPA, May 1939
By an unknown photographer

National Archives,
Records of the Work Projects Administration

A musical review, Sing for Your Supper, poked fun at the Federal Theatre and at politicians as well as satirized contemporary events. In the "leaning on a shovel" skit, WPA workers musically disputed charges that work relief promoted lazy workers who were paid for "shovel leaning." In one stanza they sang:

When you look at things today
Like Boulder Dam and TVA
And all those playgrounds where kids can play
We did it--by leaning on a shovel!
C.C.C. A Young Man's Opportunity ... by Albert Bender

"C.C.C. A Young Man's Opportunity for Work Play Study & Health"
By Albert Bender, Chicago Federal Art Project, WPA, ca. 1935

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
(B WPA Ill.B46 1)

Created in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed jobless young men on work projects such as planting trees, stocking lakes and rivers, and building shelters, trails, and campgrounds. It had a close relationship with many of the federal art projects. Federal Theatre troupes entertained at CCC camps, and Federal Art Project workers gave drawing classes. Several government artists created works with CCC themes. Sometimes, as in this poster by Albert Bender and in the photograph by Wilfred Mead that follows it, they extolled the benefits of CCC discipline, food, medical care, and education.
C.C.C . "We Can Take It" by Wilfred J. Mead

"The slogan of the Civilian Conservation Corps is 'We can take it!' Building strong bodies is a major CCC objective. More than half the enrollees who entered CCC the last year were seventeen years of age. Work, calisthenics, marching drill, good food, and medical care feature the CCC health program."
By Wilfred J. Mead, Civilian Conservation Corps, undated

National Archives, Records of the Civilian Conservation Corps

National Youth Administration by Alden Krider

Painting depicting the activities of the National Youth Administration
By Alden Krider, Kansas National Youth Administration, 1936
Oil on canvas

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration

The National Youth Administration (NYA) provided jobs for young adults, especially college students, many of whom found themselves without work, direction, or hope. In 1936, Alden Krider, an NYA artist, painted the story of the NYA for an exhibit at the Kansas State Fair. The painting's shadowy background represents some of the problems and temptations faced by young people during the Depression: crime, poverty, gambling, and homelessness. In the foreground, Krider shows the various types of beneficial employment provided by the NYA. President Roosevelt's words establishing the NYA in 1935 are also prominently displayed.
"Years of Dust" by Ben Shahn

"Years of Dust"
By Ben Shahn, Resettlement Administration, 1937

Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, National Archives and Records Administration
(MO 90-10)

Beginning in the early 1930s, parts of the United States experienced a severe drought that brought huge dust storms to parts of the Midwest and southern plains. These storms financially destroyed many farmers. New Dealers created the Resettlement Administration in 1935 to attack the rural poverty that had grown out of the Depression and dust storms. It provided impoverished farmers with equipment, low-cost loans, and education about soil conservation. In his 1937 poster "Years of Dust," Ben Shahn contrasted an image of an impoverished pre-New Deal farmer trapped by years of drought with a listing of the Resettlement Administration's bold actions.
Poster: "One Third of a Nation", Oregon WPA Theatre

Poster for Portland, Oregon, production of One-Third of a Nation
By an unknown artist, Oregon Federal Art Project, WPA, 1938

National Archives, Records of the Work Projects Administration

"Living Newspapers," a Federal Theatre Project innovation, were plays that used newspaper and other documentary sources to dramatize contemporary social and political issues. After President Roosevelt declared in a speech that "one-third of a nation" was "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," the FTP seized on the phrase for the title of a "Living Newspaper" about housing. One-Third of a Nation's realistic portrayal of urban slum conditions (including sets designed from actual tenements) made it a hit, but when it endorsed specific housing legislation and used quotes from Congressmen opposed to public housing, several Senators attacked the play.
Electrification by David Stone Martin

By David Stone Martin, Treasury Section of Fine Arts, 1940
Tempera on cardboard

Fine Arts Collection, General Services Administration

In the early 1930s, 9 out of 10 American farms had no electricity. One of the New Deal's major achievements was bringing electrical power to rural parts of the country, and this success was most vividly demonstrated in the Tennessee River Valley. Through the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the federal government built a series of huge hydroelectric dams to provide power to the countryside. Artist David Stone Martin memorialized this accomplishment in his mural for the post office in Lenoir, TN.
Rural Electrification Administration co-op office... by Peter Sakaer

"Rural Electrification Administration co-op office. Lafayette, Louisiana. 1939"
By Peter Sakaer, Rural Electrification Administration

National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture

When power companies refused to run lines into rural America, claiming it was too expensive, the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration sponsored cooperatives that received low-cost government loans for developing electric power. Photographer Peter Sakaer artfully documented one co-op in Louisiana bathed in the light it had brought to the region.

National Archives and Records Administration