Many of the WPA’s undertakings still form the framework of the United States. In addition, depression-era Americans were able to connect with a broad range of fine and performing arts aimed at enhancing their quality of life. Through the administration of Federal Project Number One, the WPA presented cultural events including concerts, art exhibitions, and plays, all contained under the umbrella of the Federal Art Project (FAP). The FAP hired visual artists, theater professionals, and writers to create, produce, perform, and promote entertaining experiences and to document the rich traditions and history of America’s folk arts.
Under the FAP, the WPA Poster Division was charged with producing posters to raise awareness and promote a wide range of programs, activities, and behaviors that the Roosevelt administration believed would improve people’s lives: community involvement, accessible education, good health and hygiene, a strong work ethic, cultural outings, sports, domestic travel, and conservation of natural resources, among many others. From roughly 500 artists hired throughout the life of the project, more than 35,000 designs were created and two million posters were produced and distributed.
As artifacts, the posters serve as an important snapshot of a moment in our nation’s social, cultural, and art history. Their creation played a key role not only in promoting the hopes and aspirations of a government but also in advancing American poster design and printing techniques.
Technically, the posters represent innovative developments in American graphic design and poster printmaking. Production shifted from hand-painted images on easels to woodblock and lithography and, in 1936, to the revolutionary use of silkscreen, previously only a commercial medium.
Critique of federally funded work programs—especially the art projects—eventually led to cuts throughout the system and signaled the end of the WPA in 1943. Because no central federal repository was established to archive the works, many state agencies simply discarded their records. The posters were particularly vulnerable because they were seen as ephemera, not as American art worthy of being catalogued and preserved for future generations.
The record of the WPA posters is a meaningful one. It is a fascinating journey, from the complex goals and objectives of the New Deal programs of the Great Depression to a collection of posters that continues to engage, entertain, and inspire, even today. We believe the story of these captivating posters deserves to be protected and celebrated and that the remaining examples should once again be brought to light.
Even today, the posters of the WPA still achieve their original goals. They call attention to important social issues and values through beautiful and meaningful design. Together, they serve as timeless reminders of Americans’ collective past and a commitment to a bright future. Thankfully, they continue to inspire people to believe in America as a hopeful and positive nation for all.