The Public Works of Art Project, 1933-34
Lillie Coit's death in July 1929 had occurred just three months before the disastrous economic crash that shocked and crippled the nation. Four years later, the economy had still not rallied to the level of prosperity of pre-crash days. The art world was also in crisis. The prices and sales of the prosperous 1920s fell to a depressingly low level. The image of the starving artist was now more than just a romantic notion.
In both the ancient world and Europe, government support of artists had a long and productive history, dating back to the sponsorship of murals by Egyptian pharoahs for their greater glory in the next world. Monarchies and the church had commissioned artists and sculptors to adorn buildings in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. While government patronage of the arts was not new, it had never existed in the United States as an economic fact of life.
Thus in 1933, an artist with impeccable credentials proposed a novel idea to heal the financial malaise to which the American art world had succumbed. He was George Biddle, a classmate of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a member of a socially prominent Philadelphia family, who had given up a law career to pursue art. He had been impressed by the 1920s art movement in Mexico: President Alvaro Obregon had put to work a number of young artists to decorate public buildings in Mexico City, illustrating aspects of the Mexican revolution. For this work the painters had received low but dependable government-funded wages as civil servants.
Biddle wrote to his old fellow schoolmate from Groton and Harvard, President Roosevelt, asking that American artists be employed to paint murals depicting the social ideals of the new administration and contemporary life on the walls of public buildings.
Roosevelt, newly elected, was just launching the nationwide New Deal. He put Biddle in touch with Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Robert, the "custodian of federal buildings." Robert informed Biddle that a department in charge of decorating federal buildings had existed since 1910, but in fact this adornment had usually been of the Federal Classic style which was so traditionally architectural that it was hardly distinguishable from the structures it embellished. Secretary Robert was sympathetic to Biddle's innovative ideas for contemporary art in government buildings in Washington, D.C. -- but they both had to do battle with the conservative National Commission of Fine Arts, which favored the neo-classical pattern of the past. At this point Robert sought counsel of a colleague in the Treasury Department, Edward Bruce, who was recommended by Florence Kahn, a congresswoman from California.