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Federal Art Project

In histories of the 1930s, the Federal Art Project (FAP) often is described as a relief program for artists or perhaps a pathbreaking venture in publicly supported art. Its Administrator, however, Holger Cahill, framed the agency’s work differently ahead of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. “Conservation of the nation’s resources,” he wrote, “has become a major function of government,” and that included “artistic skills and talents.” The insinuation of American culture blowing away like Dust Bowl soils was a serious indictment, yet Cahill was careful to observe that a majority of the FAP’s 5,300 artists were what he called journeymen painters, craftsmen, and commercial artists—a fair characterization of many artists in the New Deal Gallery collection. Their necessity for "conservation" efforts was grounded in a directly ecological conception: “The organization of the Project has proceeded on the principle that it is not the solitary genius but a sound general movement which maintains art as a vital, functioning part of any cultural scheme. Art is not a matter of rare, occasional masterpieces....In a genuine art movement a great reservoir of art is created in many forms, both major and minor” (17-18). Having seen the boom and crash of a fragile system built upon the conspicuous display of art to signal elite social status, Cahill was arguing for greater resilience and sustainability.

Philip Cheney's "Long Island Farm," at the New Deal Gallery, demonstrates the principle via its subject matter. In the far distance, under dramatic clouds, we see the magnificent skyline of Manhatten in shades of icy blues and grays—including perhaps the recently completed Empire State Building at left. Dominating the painting in the middle- and foregrounds are rows of carefully tended vegetables and two farmworkers rendered in earth tones. It was truck farms like this (in Queens?) that for decades provided the material basis for New York's vibrant culture; during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s even food couldn't be taken for granted, and so wherever we see a simple bowl of fruit in a still life from the period it registers very differently. Exhibits in "The Green New Deal" explore a cluster of environmental concerns that link our times to the 1930s: ecological degradation, economic precarity, long-deferred restoration, and—as we see from Cahill at the MoMA exhibtion—a broadly expanded meaning of Conservation.

Sources Consulted

-- Cahill, Holger. Introduction. New Horizons in American Art, Museum of Modern Art, 1936, pp. 9-41. Web version at Museum of Modern Art.