The Great Depression brought new meaning to the term “starving artist”. As the market for art evaporated, artists joined other Americans in the soup kitchens. The federal government developed projects to employ people, using all kinds of skills and talents to support themselves and their families. Construction projects, writing projects, and public art were some of these projects. In 1930 the population of New Mexico was less than half a million and by 1935 over half of New Mexico’s citizens were enrolled in one of the New Deal programs. Today we are still the beneficiaries of the public buildings, roads, rock walls, campgrounds, dams and furniture created during WPA days and in many of these public places there is outstanding fine art created under WPA for the Arts. In addition, many WPA artists in New Mexico became well known. Names like Gustave Baumann, Charles Berninghaus, Ernest Blumenschein, Gerald Cassidy, Pop Chalee, Herbert Dunton, Fremont Ellis, Peter Hurd, Joseph Imhof, Gene Kloss, Helmuth Naumer, Pablita Velarde, and Walter Ufer might never have been known to us without WPA for the Arts. Helmuth Naumer, past director of the NM Office of Cultural Affairs (deceased) wrote in Treasures on New Mexico Trails: Discover New Deal Art and Architecture, “The WPA era, though late in New Mexico’s art development, was a catalyst that helped the world recognize American Art. As the son of a participating WPA artist, it is exciting to see the revival of interest in this truly creative period and thus recognition for many of the hard working artists who captured for the future a world that is almost gone. Their understanding and insights have much to teach us all.”
These truly democratic works of art and architecture created under WPA for the Arts serve as a reminder of the good that government can do. The New Deal demonstrated that fine art is not the property of wealthy patrons but a birthright of people everywhere. Art belongs to all of us! Albuquerque has proudly continued in this spirit with one of the oldest Public Art programs in the country, started in 1978 with the passage of a Percent for Art ordinance. This initiative sets aside 1% of the City construction funds derived from the general obligation bond program and certain revenue bonds for the purchase or commission of works of art. Next time you see a piece of public art, appreciate that it reflects the spirit, diversity and creativity of all the people who live here. If you would like to know more about WPA art around the state, pick up a copy of “Treasures on New Mexico Trails: Discover New Deal Art and Architecture”, published by Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1995. For more information on Public Art in Albuquerque, pick up a brochure, call the City of Albuquerque Public Art Program at 768-3829 or go to www.cabq.gov/publicart. Also check out WPA Sin Nombre, Hispana and Hispano Artists of the New Deal Era at www.wpasinnombre.org
Joan Fenicle, Artscrawl Coordinator
“Art raises us above all the chaos and turmoil of daily life.
It gives us a sense of our humanity over all that is inhuman.
Enjoy and support the arts. Art is the only thing that endures.”
Cuban American painter
Member Rainbow Artists
an Albuquerque-based women’s art collective