The Federal Art Project (FAP) was the largest of the New Deal’s art and culture initiatives employing artists to adorn the public buildings constructed with WPA funds. Artists in the U.S. reacted positively to the FAP not only because it provided work and support as they developed their talent, but also because of its spirit of social consciousness.
From 1935-1942, WPA artists were recruited through newspaper advertisements placed around the country. In order to qualify, they had to demonstrate financial need and provide a portfolio of their work. The FAP had a non-discrimination clause that meant it attracted and hired artists of color and women, who previously received little attention in the art world. By 1938, the FAP had art programs in all existing 48 states.
The FAP employed artists to paint murals and easel paintings; to create sculptures; and to produce graphic art such as lithographs, prints, and etchings. The FAP paid artists to make 2,500 public murals, 108,000 easel paintings, 19,000 pieces of sculpture, and 36,000 posters. The college’s only FAP murals are in the Library’s LaGuardia Reading Room. The Mural Division was headed by Burgoyne Diller who later taught in the Brooklyn College Art Department.
WPA art favored Social Realism and American Regionalism rather than abstract art. The artists responded with landscapes, cityscapes, industrial scenes, farmland, and still-life paintings. Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko, Jacob Lawrence, Louise Nevelson, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, Thomas Hart Benton, and Ben Shahn are just some of the notable artists who obtained work from the FAP.
Partisan politics resulted in opposition to the FAP. Some politicians accused artists of being Socialists and Communists. In 1937, the WPA was saddled with a regulation that it would not allow employment of non-U.S. citizens. Mark Rothko, from Latvia (who later taught at Brooklyn College), and the Dutch artist Willem de Kooning, were among the many artists who were excluded from the FAP because of this ruling.