Chazen Museum of Art


Exhibition of New Deal Paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum Coming to the Chazen Museum of Art

On view February 16–April 28, 2012


Madison, Wis., January 17, 2013—In 1934, against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the U.S. government created the Public Works of Art Project—the first federal government program to support the arts. A selection of paintings made under this program will be on view February 16 through April 28, 2013, in the exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists at the Chazen Museum of Art. It is presented as part of a three-year tour of the United States that began in 2010.

1934: A New Deal for Artists was organized to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Project by drawing on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s unparalleled collection of vibrant paintings created for the program. The 56 paintings in the exhibition are a lasting visual record of America at a specific moment in time. George Gurney, deputy chief curator, organized the exhibition with Ann Prentice Wagner, curatorial associate.

In 1933, the United States was in crisis. The national economy had fallen into an extended depression after the stock market crash of October 1929. Thousands of banks failed, wiping out the life savings of millions of families. Farmers battled drought, erosion and declining food prices. Businesses struggled or collapsed. A quarter of the work force was unemployed, while an equal number worked reduced hours. More and more people were homeless and hungry. Nearly 10,000 unemployed artists faced destitution.

The nation looked expectantly to President Roosevelt, who was inaugurated in March 1933. The new administration swiftly initiated a wide-ranging series of economic recovery programs called the New Deal. The President realized that Americans needed not only employment but also the inspiration art could provide. The Advisory Committee to the Treasury on Fine Arts organized the PWAP on December 8, 1933. Within days, 16 regional committees were recruiting artists who eagerly set to work all over the country. During the project’s brief existence, from December 1933 to June 1934, the PWAP hired 3,749 artists who created 15,663 paintings, murals, sculptures, prints, drawings and craft objects at a cost of $1,312,000.

Participating artists were encouraged to depict “the American Scene.” They interpreted this idea freely, painting regional, recognizable subjects—from portraits to cityscapes and city life to landscapes and rural life—that reminded the public of quintessential American values such as hard work, community, progress and optimism. The artworks, displayed in schools, libraries, post offices, museums and government buildings, vividly capture the realities and ideals of Depression-era America.

The exhibition is arranged into eight sections: American People, City Life, Labor, Industry, Leisure, The City, The Country and Nature. Works from 13 of the 16 regions are represented. Artists from across the country included Ilya Bolotowsky, Lily Furedi and Max Arthur Cohn (New York City); Harry Gottlieb and Douglass Crockwell (upstate New York); Herman Maril (Maryland); Gale Stockwell (Missouri); E. Dewey Albinson (Minnesota); E. Martin Hennings (New Mexico); and Millard Sheets (California).

The program was open to women, foreign-born residents, and artists of all races who were often denied other opportunities. Earle Richardson, an African American who painted Employment of Negroes in Agriculture, was a native New Yorker; his painting of quietly dignified Southern laborers intentionally defied racial stereotypes. In the Seattle area many Japanese Americans made a living as farmers, yet they faced prejudice and anti-alien laws restricting land ownership. Kenjiro Nomura’s foreboding painting The Farm depicts a shadowed and potentially stormy rural scene.

Ross Dickinson paints the confrontation between humans and nature in Valley Farms, depicting a verdant irrigated southern California valley and dry, reddish-brown hills. Fertile agricultural California drew many Midwestern farmers escaping the Dust Bowl, yet the dry climate held the threat of fire.

Several artists highlighted American ingenuity. Stadium lighting was still rare when Morris Kantor painted Baseball at Night, and Ray Strong’s Golden Gate Bridge pays homage to the engineering of San Francisco’s iconic structure. Old Pennsylvania Farm in Winter by Arthur E. Cederquist prominently features telephone poles that might also have been used to supply electricity, a rare modern amenity in rural America.

In April 1934, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., exhibited more than 500 works created for the PWAP. President Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and government officials in attendance enthusiastically commended the art. The Roosevelts selected 32 paintings for display at the White House, including Sheets’ Tenement Flats and Strong’s Golden Gate Bridge. Selected paintings from the Corcoran exhibition later traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and other cities across the country. The success of the PWAP paved the way for later New Deal art programs, including the well-known Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project.

A fully illustrated color catalogue, co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and D Giles Ltd. in London, is available for purchase. It features an essay by Roger Kennedy, historian and director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; individual entries for each artwork by Wagner; and an introduction by the museum’s director Elizabeth Broun.

Free Public Programs

Thursday, February 21: Lecture and Reception

  • 5:30 p.m. “Discoveries about the Public Works of Art Project,” lecture by Ann Prentice Wagner, curator of drawings, Arkansas Arts Center, and exhibition curatorial associate. Auditorium 
    Wagner will give a brief history of the Public Works of Art Project and discuss art works in the exhibition and the places depicted as the artists strove to represent, as the PWAP asked them, “the American scene.” The PWAP set many precedents for the more famous Works Progress Administration art project and others that followed during the Great Depression.
  • 6:30–8 p.m. Reception for the exhibition 1934: A New Deal for Artists, with music by the New Mad City Ramblers, refreshments, and a cash bar

Docent tours: Thursdays in March and April, 4 p.m. Docents lead 40-minute drop-in tours of 1934: A New Deal for Artists. Rowland Galleries.

Selected Thursdays at 7 p.m.: New Deal Cinema

  • February 28: Stand Up and Cheer (USA, 1934, 35mm, 68 min.)
    Director: Hamilton MacFadden. Cast: Warner Baxer, James Dunn, Shirley Temple
    President Roosevelt names a brash Broadway producer as the country’s first Secretary of Amusement. Facing antagonistic lobbyists, he enlists a father-daughter act who wow the nation. Preceded by Betty Boop in her only Technicolor cartoon, Poor Cinderella (1934, 11 min.)
  • March 14: The President Vanishes (USA, 1934, 35mm, 80 min.)
    Director: William A. Wellman. Cast: Edward Arnold, Arthur Byron, Rosalind Russell
    The President stages his own kidnapping to stall the plans of manipulative war mongerers.
  • April 4: Fashions of 1934 (USA, 1934, 35mm, 78 min.)
    Director: William Dieterle. Cast: William Powell, Bette Davis, Frank McHugh
    A swindler and his assistant attempt to steal the latest Paris fashion designs and sell cut-rate knock-offs. Caught in the act, the duo must put on a legitimate fashion show.
  • April 25: King of the Hill (USA, 1993, 35mm, 103 min.)
    Director: Steven Soderbergh. Cast: Jesse Bradford, Karen Allen, Spalding Gray
    Twelve-year-old Aaron (Bradford) uses his ingenuity and imagination to survive during the Depression when he is separated from his family. Based on the memoir of writer A.E. Hotchner.

March 21, 7 p.m. Bridge Poetry Series: Invited Wisconsin poets will read original poems inspired by the exhibition. This is a semiannual reading of poetry written in response to art.

April 18, 4:30 p.m.: Panel Discussion
“Wisconsin Seen: Homegrown Interpretations from the Federal Arts Projects and Social Policy” Panelists will address how the federal arts projects and social policy affected Wisconsin in the 1930s and after. Auditorium
Lauren Kroiz, assistant professor of art history, UW–Madison, on John Steuart Curry and the Wisconsin Rural Art Program; Thomas Lidtke, director emeritus, Museum of Wisconsin Art, on New Deal Art and the Milwaukee Paradigm; and Arnold Alanen, emeritus professor of landscape architecture, UW–Madison, on the New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin.

Additional information and resources about the exhibition are available at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Web page:

1934: A New Deal for Artists is organized and circulated by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with support from the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund and the Smithsonian Council for American Art. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, “Treasures to Go.”

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Digital images for media use are available upon request. Contact: Susan Day, Editor, (608) 263-2068,

Chazen Museum of Art | 750 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706 | 608.263.2246 |

The Chazen Museum of Art is open Tues., Weds., and Fri. 9–5; Thurs. 9–9; Sat. and Sun. 11–5. Admission is free. The museum is located on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The main entrance is wheelchair accessible. Parking is available at the City of Madison State Street Campus Ramp (entrances on Frances and Lake streets) and under University Square. Hourly parking is available in UW lot 46 lower level with credit card payment. Evening and weekend parking is also available in UW lot 83 under Fluno Center, entrance on Frances Street, and in UW lot 7 under Grainger Hall, entrance on Brooks Street. The Chazen will provide sign language interpreters for associated programs by three-week advance request to Anne Lambert, (608) 263-4421 (voice). Information is also available at

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