The kind invitation that Ennis Carter extended to me provided an opportunity to reflect on how much the status and visibility of these posters has changed since my research on the subject began in 1978.
I had seen several posters in an American Heritage book about 1930s history and wanted to know more. Tentative investigation to gather information came up empty. As with other work produced by artists employed by the Federal Art Project, the posters had long been forgotten by the public and ignored by art historians. My inquiries to poster dealers ended similarly. They were unfamiliar with WPA posters, which were not catalogued in volumes of poster history or available in the marketplace. Their awkward responses served to reinvigorate my quest to resurrect and re-present the posters, and I set to work.
In the four-plus years of diligent searches through bins and flat files in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and in correspondence with poster and ephemera dealers nationwide, I turned up fewer than a dozen WPA posters available for purchase. Eventually, my search led to the two largest archives of the posters: the Library of Congress and the Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University.
The enthusiasm, professional skills, and kindness of many at those institutions made possible Posters of the WPA—the first history and reference book devoted exclusively to the subject.
Since publication of my book in 1987, the status of the posters has changed substantially. No longer an arcane footnote in the history of graphic arts and poster design, today they are a more valued and appreciated body of work. In 2000 the Library of Congress scanned and digitized their holdings, creating a searchable online database of more than 900 posters, and images are now available for viewing and use. I’ve seen the posters on T-shirts and coffee mugs and in corn flake commercials and Hollywood films including David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner.
Importantly, the WPA poster artists are now widely recognized for their contribution to the history of graphic art. I have long held the hope that WPA art and its artists would enter the lexicon and consciousness of those who research, write about, and are concerned with the history of American art. That hope has been realized. As institutional collections reappraise and discover their Federal Art Project holdings, long-archived items are emerging from storage to be displayed in gallery settings.
Despite this heightened profile, however, there are still more to be discovered. With more than 35,000 posters designed and two million printed, the large federal collection at the Library of Congress is only a small sampling.
The same excitement that I felt during my initial search to uncover and bring to light long unseen WPA posters revisits me as I learn about each new one discovered through Ennis Carter’s work with the WPA Living Archive. The nearly 500 images in Posters for the People are the most extensive collection ever published. The posters no longer need defending or an explication of their worth—-simply seeing them is convincing.
Ennis and I share a great passion for the WPA poster. The intensive search for unknown examples will benefit all who care about America’s cultural and artistic heritage.