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Hummingbirds and Orchids Martin Johnson Heade
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Hummingbirds and Orchids (47.36) — Martin Johnson Heade

Government Support for the Arts: WPA Prints from the 1930s

Friday, November 27, 2009 – Sunday, March 21, 2010

  • For Everyone

This exhibition features around 100 prints created under the Federal Art Project, a unit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) created in 1935 to provide economic relief to Americans during the Great Depression. Like railroad workers, miners, farmers, and anyone out of work, artists were recognized as a special group of laborers in need of financial assistance.

More than 5,000 artists created hundreds of thousands of artworks, the majority of them prints. Printmaking centers were established across the country where artists worked with master technicians and materials to produce images for display in buildings financed by federal tax dollars. Artists of all ethnic backgrounds were accepted on the sole basis of need and skill. While images of industry, labor, leisure, and daily life dominate the material, portraiture and landscape were also subjects. Styles ranged from very realistic to abstract and surreal.

The era represents a very specific moment when art for the people was a true rallying concept that resulted in wonderful woodcuts, wood engravings, linoleum cuts, etchings, lithographs, and the then new "silkscreen" process. These prints speak to the essence of the times and document a significant phase in the printmaking history of the United States.


The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and Let's Save Michigan have issued an open call to artists, illustrators, and graphic designers for original posters to inspire Michiganders to revive their state. For details on the contest click here.


Check out how visitors to this DIA exhibition responded when we asked them to draw or write about the kinds of images that capture “everyday America” today.


Government Support for the Arts Image Gallery


Images are Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration, commissioned through the New Deal art projects.

Arc Welder, Bryant Pringle, c. 1934/1943, lithograph printed in black on wove paper, image: 12½ x 9½ in.; sheet: 15 3/8 x 12½ in. Gift of the Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project