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National Art Education Association The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action Author(s): George J. Mavigliano Source: Art Education, Vol. 37, No. 3 (May, 1984), pp. 26-30 Published by: National Art Education Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3192762 . Accessed: 15/06/2014 17:29 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. . National Art Education Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Art Education. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Sun, 15 Jun 2014 17:29:31 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

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Page 1: The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

National Art Education Association

The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of ActionAuthor(s): George J. MaviglianoSource: Art Education, Vol. 37, No. 3 (May, 1984), pp. 26-30Published by: National Art Education AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3192762 .

Accessed: 15/06/2014 17:29

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].


National Art Education Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to ArtEducation.


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Page 2: The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

The Federal Art Project:

George J. Mavigliano

/ Surely art is not merely a decorative sort of unrelated accompaniment of life. In a genuine sense it should have use; it should be interwoven with the very stuff and texture of human experience, intensi- fying that experience, making it more pro- found, rich, clear, and coherent. This can be accomplished only if the artist is func- tioning freely in relation to society, and if society wants what he is able to offer. (New Horizons in American Art, 1936, 40).

S ounding a great deal like the philosopher-educator John Dewey, Holger Cahill, direc- tor of the Federal Art Project

from 1935 to 1943, promised a broader and socially acceptable base for American art. Cahill was a museum curator, an organizer of art exhibits, an aspiring writer, and most impor- tantly, an art lover. He was born in Minnesota in 1893, was pressured into a life of farming, but at thirteen ran away to Canada. By the age of twenty, he had settled in Greenwich Village, New York, where he remained until WWI.

He was educated at Columbia and the New School for Social Research where he interested himself in literature and writing. His first introduction to the world of art came when he joined the staff of the Newark Museum as an adviser in American art. In 1932, Cahill left the Newark Museum to take a job at the American Museum of Modern Art until he was appointed, in 1935, director of the Federal Art Pro- ject (FAP).

In 1932, Cahill published American Folk Art in which he laid the founda- tion for his view of art as a form of folk expression. Even before his association with the FAP, he voiced strong support for government subsidy of American art. Cahill accepted the position of FAP director at a pivotal time in the development of American art. His approach was rational and founded upon sympathetic insight into the needs of the American art scene. Like Dewey, Cahill recognized the im-

portance of an integration between the fine and practical arts. Cahill claimed that American industrialism had pro- duced, ". .. a fearful clutter of unlove- ly things, and this in turn has resulted in a degradation of popular taste, since these objects provide the only art that many individuals know" (New, Hori- zons, 1936, p. 19). According to Cahill, the fine arts were needed to provide direction for the manufac- turer, craftsperson, and the public.

Cahill deliberately set out to pro- mote a new movement in American art. His program of action began with the intention of creating a forum by which artists' products could be rein- troduced into the mainstream of socie- ty; he used Dewey's philosophy as a way of binding the two into a coherent whole.

In the text of his speech given at the John Dewey Eightieth Birthday Cele- bration on Saturday, October 28, 1939, Cahill made it clear how much Dewey's influence could be felt in art education. Cahill praised Dewey and his followers for seeing the value of art as a focal point of daily life. Cahill pointed out that art should not be looked upon as a mere frill to standard education but is best understood when it is experienced through participation. Cahill, as direc- tor of the Federal Art Project, was in full sympathy with the New Deal Pro- gram and the problems of the unemployed. He also saw a chance to implement his theories on art in this unique experiment. He saw the project he helped create as a translation of his philosophic beliefs, beliefs he gleaned from John Dewey.

Holger Cahill (unidentified mural in background) WPA/FAP 1938. Photo the property of Garnett Beisel.


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Page 3: The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

Holger Cahill's Program of Action

In this article ... Mavigliano takes us back to the Federal

Art Project of the Great Depression and its director,

Holger Cahill. "For Cahill, the ability to appreciate works of

art was not the exclusive birth right

of a few people." Poster designed to be used by Community Art Centers to promote interest WPA/FAP Pro- ject, 1939-40. Designed by the Illinois Art Project Poster Unit. Photo the property of the John Walley Papers, University of Illinois Library, Chicago Circle Campus.

Cahill was most familiar with Dewey (1934) through the book Art As Ex- perience. This book is Dewey's most rigorous expression of naturalistic aesthetics. In it, Dewey argued for the continuity of aesthetics with the rest of life and culture and argued against a sharp separation of fine and useful arts. Furthermore, he gave strong justi- fication for the fine arts both as a model and an essential constituent of the life of reason. Frequent tendencies to separate means and ends produced a practical civilization in which there was no interest in sensuous charm or im- aginative grace; on the other hand, it produced the luxuries of the aesthete whose creations and enjoyments have no connection with the rest of life. Against such a dualism, Dewey's philosophy was a powerful protest; he maintained that the function of art is to organize experience more mean- ingfully, coherently, and vividly than ordinary life permits.

Dewey contended that the "artistic" and the "aesthetic" are indissoluble, noting that "it is most unfortunate there is no term to represent their com- bination" (1934, p. 46). The term "ar- tistic" ordinarily characterizes produc- tion of an art object. The term "aesthe-

tic" characterizes that of the receptive, appreciative phase of enjoyment. For Dewey, artists must be guided by some aesthetic in the creation of their pro- ducts.

It is this concept of the "artistic/aes- thetic" that is the key to understanding Dewey's aesthetic theory and the com- municative function of art to which he ascribed. Because of the nature of this experience, expression and perception dissolve the barriers that separate human beings from one another.

Implications of a program of action related to Dewey's philosophy are numerous, yet, none more important than the communicative power of art. Dewey believed that "works of art are the only media of complete and un- hindered communication between man and man that can occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience" (1934, p. 105). It is by way of communication that art be- comes the incomparable instrument of instruction.

Cahill, aware of this thesis, em- barked on a course of action, which drew upon Dewey's principle of the universal communicability of art to bring about a successful Federal Art Program. What he found appealing

about Dewey's theory was its op- timism. Given the state of the arts, in contrast to the state of the economy in America during the thirties, such a pro- gram was bound to receive close con- sideration. The history of American art, particularly the relationship of the American artist to society, provided Cahill with necessary evidence for his convictions:

It has been the function of our time ... to organize great democratic cultural pro- grams for restoring the former healthy relation between artist and public. The shock needed to set these programs go- ing was the Great Depression, which made it clear that unless the organized community stepped in, the arts would enter a dark age from which they might not recover for generations. (Cahill, 1944, 104)

Cahill saw resurgence of the arts coming from the growth of leisure time and efforts of the art community to make art one of the outlets for this newly acquired leisure. Widened public awareness of the need for art and the suggestion of how to cultivate an in- terest came out of developments in- itiated by artists and educators. Cahill

Art Education May 1984 27

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Page 4: The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

Girls' Dining Room of the Juvenile Detention Home, Chicago. Outside landscape with figures, by Francis Badger. (Artist shown to right of ladder). WPA/FAP Project 1937.

(1944) stated that the widened public consciousness "has been fostered by artists, museum directors, writers and progressive educators around John Dewey" (p. 104).

In the introduction to New Horizons in American Art, Cahill included a synopsis of American art. He claimed that the American artist had rarely ex- perienced a full and open relationship with the public and that this cleavage became increasingly apparent under the stress of the social and economic uncertainties of the 1930's. The course of social change had always affected art. During the thirties the art market all but disappeared. Dealers asked ar- tists to cut prices while they increased commissions. American artists faced the prospect of starvation, idleness, and the inevitable loss of skill.

Thus, the United States Government established a series of art projects. Although it is unnecessary here to pre- sent a protracted history of the various programs, a brief description of each is valuable because, while all Federal art programs of the 1933-43 period are commonly referred to as WPA/FAP, only one program actually existed under this title.

The "Public Works of Art Projects" (PWAP) was the Government's first program and was initiated on Decem- ber 3, 1933, and ended seven months later. It put 3,749 artists to work at salaries averaging between $26.00 and $42.00 dollars per week. Under this program a total of 15,663 art works were allocated to public, non-profit organizations.

The PWAP had been so successful that in October of 1934, a "Section of Painting and Sculpture" was estab- lished. Its purpose was to provide suit- able paintings and sculpture for public buildings and to stimulate the develop- ment of art throughout the country. Open and anonymous competitions were held for murals and sculpture to decorate small post offices and new Federal buildings then being con- structed. Unlike the PWAP program, artists were paid a fixed sum amount- ing to about one percent of building construction costs.

A new dimension was added to the Government's support of the arts when the Treasury Department proposed to obtain money from the Works Pro- gress Administration (WPA) to hire 500 unemployed artists to embellish some of its 1900 undecorated build- ings. This program was known as the "Treasury Relief of Art Project" (TRAP) and began operation in July 1935. The main condition set by the WPA was that 90% of the labor had to come from relief rolls. The 10 to 25% non-relief artists were considered master painters who would execute murals with assistants taken from the relief rolls. This program ended on June 30, 1939, with 85 murals, 39 pieces of sculpture and 10,215 easel paintings completed.

The "Federal Art Project" (FAP) of the WPA and known as the WPA/FAP was established in May of 1935 when the government accepted the notion of work relief for artists and that such a program could succeed. Artists, work-

ing in all media were paid salaries for a specified number of hours per month. The artist was free to create what he or she pleased. It was this freedom that provided the force by which American art was to have its major impact on the world of art. Unfortunately, unsym- pathetic Congressional pressures reached a peak in September 1939 when funds for the program were reduced and various states were re- quired to subsidize the program by 25 %. This, coupled with events leading up to World War II, put an end to the project.

The main concern of Cahill in the early stages of the WPA/FAP was to insure that the scope of the program would be broad enough to encompass every degree of skill and large enough to accommodate as many people as possible. This was very important. John Walley (1966), an Illinois based FAP artist, said "Cahill's philosophy was that if you can create a great number of plateaus, then you eventual- ly get the peaks." Muralist Henry Var- num Poor put it differently, "Instead of trying to pick the best thing in the world at fifty thousand bucks, why not select fifty artists at a thousand dollars a piece. That way you'll be sure to have something good for your money. Scrap the rest" (Biddle, 1939, 254). As Cahill himself noted, one of the most impor- tant lessons of art history is that great art arises only in situations where there is a great deal of art activity and where the general level of art activity is high.

The Project had been guided from its inception by the belief that art should belong to everyone in a democ- racy. Cahill knew that many people would not agree with such a phil- osophy, and that a truly popular art would be considered a vulgarization of taste. He disagreed with the notion of vulgarity in the context of a popular art. For Cahill, the ability to appreciate works of art was not the exclusive birthright of a few people. It was large- ly the product of experience. In the past this experience had been limited to the few who had the opportunity to study and enjoy art.

The Federal Art Project attempted to change all of that. The program was flexible and had considerable variety. It was organized with a view toward giving expression to every form of talent in the visual arts and meeting as many public needs as possible, espe-

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Page 5: The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

cially the need of groups and com- munities that had been previously deprived of the arts.

The Federal Art Project also became an educational experience for the artist who for the first time felt a sincere response to his or her art, a genuine need for it, and a widespread popular interest. Artists became aware, through Federal sponsorship, of every type of community demand for art. They saw the prospect of greatly in- creased audiences. Most importantly, they began to believe that the old cleavage between artists and the public could be overcome.

The Project was divided into four categories: Fine Arts which included murals, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts; Practical Arts which in- cluded posters, photography, the Index of American Design, arts and crafts, dioramas, and stage sets; Educational Services included galleries and art centers, art teaching, research, and in- formation; and the Technical and Coordinating personnel which com- prised about five percent of the total employment.

The most dramatic of the Fine Arts projects was the one devoted to murals. It was the most widely seen by the public and most widely commented upon. Murals were installed in public institutions throughout the country. Cahill believed that the quality of work indicated that American artists had a mural sense and that they had gone about their work with "enthusiasm, in- dependence and directness" (New Horizons, 1936, 33).

The mural project, in light of Dewey's ideas, is a dramatic illustra- tion of art as the most civilized form of communication and the best means for entering sympathetically into the deepest life experience of other peoples. The American artist and muralist George Biddle (1939) stated that whenever mural art reached full expression, there was a common social faith or purpose that artists shared with all classes of society.

A mural has a context uncommon to other kinds of art. It is designed ex- pressly for a certain stretch of wall in a specific room through which certain people pass. The muralist measuring this space, figuring proportions of the room, talking over the subject matter with the principal or librarian, em- bodied Cahill's treasured image of the

Spinning Demonstration, South-Side Art Center, Chicago, 1940. Photo the property of the University of Illinois Library, John Walley Papers. Chicago Circle Campus.

artist relating to an audience. It was however, with the development and implementation of programs such as the Index of American Design and Community Art Centers, that Cahill's initiative can be fully seen. The Index of American Design (IAD) represented an endeavor to compile material for a nation-wide pictorial survey of design in the American decorative, useful, and folk arts from their inception to about 1890. Subject matter included such diverse items as iron work of Maryland and Louisiana to Spanish- American crafts of weaving and wood carving. Native Indian objects were not included. A data sheet on each item in- cluded information on the material used, date of creation, locality from which it came, name(s) of the maker (when known), and of the present owner.

The IAD employed between 400 and 500 people across the country and was truly national in scope in the sense that it permanently recorded regional manifestations of American Folk art. Over 20,000 plates were completed, 7,000 of which were photographic studies, and all of this was produced in a period of six years.

The ultimate value of the Index, and why it seems to summarize so well Dewey's thinking, lies in its combina- tion of artistry and research and its goal of creating a truly integrated na- tional artistic experience. The Index did more than record our usable past, it popularized, as museums and galleries had never done, American folk art.

The Community Art Center (CAC) movement of the 1930's also reflected practical application of Dewey's theories of art as experience. The CAC philosophy was simple and straightfor- ward; it was created to build larger ac- tivity and group expression leading to more complete community sharing in the experience of art. With this goal in mind, Community Art Centers were established wherever feasible. By the time the program ended in 1943 there were more than 102 centers in states such as North and South Carolina, Alabama, Arizona, Utah, and Wyom- ing.

Cahill's aim was to use the centers to their fullest. Moreover, the com- munities were encouraged to consider the centers as proper places for com- munity activities. Although art naturally formed the basis for center activities, the CAC sponsored lectures on general educational and cultural subjects. The heart of the CAC was its educational program, designed to offer recreational art classes to anyone who wanted the opportunity to work with well trained, competent project artists. The glory of the CAC, however, lay in its children's classes; if art instruction meant a leisure time activity for adults, it represented a primary and, as the project discovered, a necessary form of expression for children. Community art centers helped break down the strange notion that art could only be appreciated by a limited group of peo- ple. Growing numbers of people began to see the value of art as a recreational pastime which formed a link between

Art Education May 1984 29

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Page 6: The Federal Art Project: Holger Cahill's Program of Action

Illinois Art Project Exhibit Opening. WPA/FAP (no date), IAP Art Gallery, Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Photograph courtesy of George J. Mavigliano.

the professional artist and the layman broadening the scope of art in the com- munity.

Both of these programs were to serve as a means of introducing art into many American communities hitherto barren of art and art interest. This was particularly true of the poorer sections of our large cities and of almost every community beyond a few favored metropolitan centers. Cahill acknowl- edged the importance of such a simple matter as finding work for the artist in his or her home town. This had two im- portant affects: it halted, to a large degree, the migration of talented young artists to larger, more culturally alive cities, and it helped cement bonds between local artists and communities. Thus, when we examine artistic resour- ces in America, we see that they depend upon the knowledge and talent of liv- ing artists and opportunites provided for people to participate in the ex- perience of art.

This notion of mass participation is the key to an assessment of Cahill's own personal accomplishments. To judge the results, we need first to know the goals. Through employment of creative artists, it was hoped that the general public would become the beneficiary of outstanding examples of contemporary American art. Through art education and recreational art ac- tivities it was hoped to create a broader national art consciousness. Applied art services were intended to aid various campaigns of social value. Through research projects, it was intended to clarify the native background of American art (Cahill, 1935).

This integration of art and life, ac- complished by the integration of the fine and practical arts, represented a new movement in American art. Just as Dewey had prescribed, Cahill had established a national art con- sciousness. What was unique about this experiment was that it did not change the style of art, nor did it force artists to conform to any suggested style; the central force of the experi- ment was delivered by the audience. The main concern was with countering the industrial revolution and helping to restore the sensitivity required in order to repair the breach between artist and society. The effect of this restored rela- tionship would be a benevolent part- nership, whereby artists would dis- cover they had a world to work in and that they had much work to do in that world.

How can we assess the accomplish- ments of this experiment and its goals? At least two ways are available: the first is based upon Cahill's personal goals and subsequent accomplishments as Director of the WPA/FAP. The se- cond is the long term effectiveness of Cahill's programs within a historical perspective.

With regard to Cahill's personal goals, the FAP represents a remarkable achievement. His explicit aim was to decentralize artistic forces in order to establish a new trend away from the major metropolitan centers, previously the mecca for artists. This was ac- complished by establishing educational programs throughout the country, i.e. community art centers, traveling arts exhibits, and practicing artists working

on various art projects in clear view of the community.

Dewey had provided the impetus for such a program and Cahill supplied the mechanism to bring it about. In terms of establishing a program of action in accordance with the philosophy of Dewey, it was a major success. His understanding of Dewey's ideas was born out in his attempts at the reclama- tion of the artist within society. The eventual demise of the FAP cannot be attributed to Cahill's efforts, but to outside forces of politics and the realities of war.

The actual impact within an histori- cal context is almost impossible to determine. The WPA/FAP provided a basis for what eventually took shape as the National Endowment for the Arts. Admittedly these programs have little in common, but they do represent con- tinued interest in subsidizing American artists. The movement to integrate art and life is still alive. The mass numbers of museum goers, numerous arts and crafts fairs, and active local communi- ty arts groups all attest to continued commitment to the arts in America. Just as Dewey's ideas provided an op- timism to which Cahill was attracted, the WPA/FAP, as an experiment, pro- vided an optimistic view for the future. The FAP represents the first treatment of ills that plagued our nation and its artists; it remains the responsibility of subsequent generations to effectively carry out the cure and unfold the potential in which Cahill and Dewey so profoundly believed. E

George J. Mavigliano is an Associate Professor of Art at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois.


Biddle, G. (1939). An American artist's story. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Cahill, H. (1944). Art goes to the people in the United States. Canadian Art, 102-131.

Cahill, H. (1935). Federal art project manual. Washington, D.C.: Works Pro- gress Administration.

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York: Minton, Balch and Company.

New horizons in American art. (1936). New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Walley, J. (1966). Taped interview. Chicago, Illinois.

Art Education May 1984



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