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Art of a New Deal: African-American Artists in the WPA

Harvest Talk, 1954. Charles White. Lithograph, from drawing. Permanent collection of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture

Past Exhibition
  • About This Exhibition

    The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was one of the many “alphabet agencies” signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and was designed to pull the United States out of the Great Depression. Federal Project Number One, a subdivision of the WPA, employed visual artists, actors, writers, and musicians. By emphasizing art and artists on a national level, the WPA gave rise to the concept of art as a career, not just a hobby.

    Initially, very few African-American artists were allowed to join the WPA’s programs. In response, African-American artists in New York City formed the Harlem Artists Guild to protest the discriminatory practices and successfully pressured the WPA to hire an unprecedented number of African-American artists. By 1943, the economy had roared back to life and the agency was dissolved.

    This exhibition looks at six artists who were employed by the WPA: Charles Alston, Ernest Crichlow, Allan Crite, Jacob Lawrence, Charles White and Hale Woodruff.  Presented in black & white, these arresting images – drawings and prints from linocuts – captured the everyday life of many African-Americans in the 20th century.  Works redolent of small pleasures, comfort, determination, injustice and even tragedy speak to the viewer through master artists whose careers were launched, or furthered, by the WPA.

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