In her latest book, Professor Mary Ann Calo paints a fuller picture of New Deal art programs and the development of African American art.
Black artists who flourished during the Harlem Renaissance were often encouraged by individuals with an appetite for exoticism, underscored by assumptions about racial difference. Their appeal was rooted in this sense of “otherness” in relation to the majority population. But thanks to the art programs generated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, minority artists of the following decade sensed a change in the cultural landscape. They were eligible — as citizens and unemployed artists — for the financial support provided by these programs. And they began to understand themselves as participants in the formation of new attitudes toward the arts and American cultural identity.
At least, that’s been the dominant narrative.
The story is more complicated than that, explains Mary Ann Calo, Batza Professor of art and art history emerita. To fully understand how these programs affected Black artists, she says, it’s time we looked not simply at individuals who flourished on the projects, such as the painter Charles Alston or the sculptor Augusta Savage, but at the Black community as a whole and the segregation and discrimination it faced.
In her new book, African American Artists and the New Deal Art Programs: Opportunity, Access, and Community, Calo zeroes in on the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP). Established in 1935, the FAP was one of several programs designed to provide artists with financial relief in the form of employment — and the only one whose eligibility criteria were intentionally race blind. Nonetheless, the FAP skill classification system that routed artists toward different types of work and different levels of autonomy had obvious disadvantages for African American artists. To determine an artist’s skill level, the application asked for formal training and exhibition history; because most Blacks had been denied such opportunities, many received a lower-level skill classification and were often oriented toward educational positions. In other words, rather than be paid to spend time in their studios making art — “the most sought-after form of employment,” Calo says — many Black artists were sent to teach in community art centers (CACs), which provided instruction in art and art appreciation to amateurs.
According to Calo, CACs were vital to the vision of Holger Cahill, who ran the FAP. Cahill believed CACs would broaden access to and interest in the arts nationwide. As it turned out, the centers had a mixed record of success, largely determined by their location. The Harlem Community Art Center, for example, was an integrated, well-resourced, thriving place where artist-instructors enjoyed access to resources that benefited their careers, such as technical instruction, studios, and materials, not to mention contact with other artists.
In contrast, segregation in the South required the creation of a “Negro extension system” of separate centers for the Black community. Administered by regional CACs set up in the states, extension centers were often established in rural locations across the country with minimal exposure to art or artists. But in the South, they were also created to serve Black populations in small cities. Furthermore, the quality of a center’s offering depended in large part on leadership and local relationships. The African American extension programs in Greensboro, N.C., for example, were plagued by chronic logistical problems and dissatisfaction, according to Calo. The local administrator who oversaw it, an unapologetic racist, was dismissive of complaints from regional Black partners about the failure to provide adequate teachers and classes. The CAC in Jacksonville, Fla., however, thrived under the leadership of an ambitious FAP state director and highly skilled and energetic African American artist-instructor.
Another previously understudied piece of this history that Calo explores is the relationship of the Artists’ Union (AU), the Harlem Artists Guild (HAG), and the National Negro Congress (NNC) during this period. The formation of the AU represented the first instance in which American artists created their own labor union. The HAG, formed to deal with conditions specific to Black artists, has long been seen as an affiliate of the AU and its majority white artistic population. But the HAG also aligned itself with the NNC, a civil rights organization dedicated to advancing and protecting the race, not just artists-as-workers.
“I’m not suggesting that the Artists’ Union wasn’t helpful to Black artists. It was. But it was a different kind of advocacy to be part of the National Negro Congress,” says Calo. “The fact that the NNC had a cultural wing, which included artists and writers, made the artists part of that civil rights conversation in a way that they weren’t in the AU.”
Mind the gap
Calo, who studies art criticism and institutional history, knew she wanted to delve into the New Deal years even as she was completing her 2007 book, Distinction and Denial: Race, Nation, and the Critical Construction of the African American Artist, 1920–40. To do so, she found the work of New Deal social historians particularly useful. Art historians tend to be more focused on the individual accomplishments of the artists who worked on the projects and how these experiences affected their careers, she explains. In her research, she noted that, in the 1960s, as New Deal cultural history was emerging, scholars had already flagged the impact of WPA art programs on the Black community as a glaring omission in ongoing projects, yet it remained understudied for decades.
“There was a void in the record,” she says, “and I wanted to fill that void.”
She dove into the notoriously unwieldy archival record of the WPA, poring over official reports and letters between field administrators and state directors. Her goal was to expand a fragmented history that had not consistently or accurately represented the Black experience.
When asked what the impact of these art programs was, Calo says, “I think [the FAP] gave artists confidence. It had a positive impact on the careers of Black artists who had good experiences. But whether it had the intended positive impact — that of increasing interest and support for the arts in the Black community overall? — I think it’s probably negligible. But I would also add that it was arguably negligible in the American population across the board.”
Calo acknowledges that not everyone will embrace a less rosy view of the artistic access and opportunities the WPA created. However, the FAP and programs like it have been “oversimplified” and “somewhat romanticized.”
“This area of scholarly research needed attention in order to tell the whole story of the WPA,” she says, and she is comfortable seeing failures as well as successes.