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The New Deal, the Arts, and Race — and Today

FDR’s New Deal included the Works Progress Administration, which generously supported the arts in unprecedented ways. Employing writers, composers, visual artists, and performers via Art, Music, and Theater projects, the WPA was a massive employment agency — and the closest Washington had come to emulating European arts subsidies. 

The Music Project alone gave 225,000 free or popularly-priced performances, attended by 150 million people, many of whom had been strangers to live concert music. 

At the same time, the New Deal made a devil’s pact with race – and the WPA was no exception. For political reasons, it did not challenge Jim Crow.

PostClassical Ensemble’s latest More than Music film is “FDR’s New Deal and the Arts: The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River — What can they teach us today?” It takes a close look at a pair of New Deal-sponsored documentary films that became classics. The musical soundtracks, by Virgil Thomson, are iconic Americana. Praised by for their spoken prose by James Joyce, the documentaries embody a rare synthesis of word, image, and music.

In the excerpt at the top of this column – which comes 47 minutes into our 65-minute film – the late George Stoney describes an experience he endured as a New Deal public information officer stationed in the south. He was censured for having touched hands with a black colleague on the steps of a post office in Montgomery, Alabama. And his colleague was warned he risked being lynched. 

In our film, that story is subsequently pondered by the New Deal historian David Woolner, who references a series of compromises beginning with the U.S. Constitution and its treatment of slavery..

You can access the full film here. Other topics include:

7:58: The influence of Sergei Eisenstein and montage

18:59: Finding new ways to employ film music, contradicting Hollywood practice

25:50: The New Deal and the arts – and the implications for today’s pandemic-related funding crisis 

Produced for PCE by Behrouz Jamali, “FDR’s New Deal and the Arts” features clips from PCE’s best-selling Naxos DVD (“revelatory” – Phillip Kennicott, The Washington Post), in which The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938) are presented with the soundtracks newly recorded by PCE conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez.

It investigates the present-day pertinence of twin inspirational government-funded documentaries which engaged the arts to address a national emergency. Today’s national emergency — the pandemic — is also a funding emergency for many orchestras and opera companies here and abroad.

A follow-up Trans-Atlantic zoom chat, at 3 pm (ET) on July 9, will address government arts funding during the pandemic in the US and Europe. The participants include Woolner, film-music historian Neil Lerner, Sir Nicolas Kenyon (UK), Ettore Volontieri (Italy/Switzerland), and Jesse Rosen from the League of American Orchestras. To register, click here.

“FDR’s New Deal and the Arts” is part of PostClassical Ensemble’s More than Music initiative.  


  1. Time to have this discussion.

  2. Thank you for this interesting post. It is unfortunate that the WPA arts projects faced so much political manipulation. I think this was yet another reason, aside from overt racism, that African-Americans were not adequately indluced.

    For comparison and context, during its years of operation, the government-funded Federal Art Project of the WPA hired about 10,000 artists who collectively created more than 100,000 paintings and murals and over 18,000 sculptures during the program’s 8 years of existence (1935-1943.) A consistent goal of the WPA was to support and celebrate cultural diversity across the country, including in smaller cities and towns. Sadly, racial barriers often remained.

    The Federal Theater Project existed for four years, from 1935 to 1939. Within a year it employed 15,000 people who created about 1200 productions (not including radio.) It played to an estimated 30 million people in more than 200 theaters nationwide, as well as in parks, schools, churches, clubs, factories, hospitals and closed-off streets.

    The Federal Theatre of the Air began weekly radio broadcasts March 15, 1936. It presented an average of 3,000 programs annually on commercial stations and the NBC, Mutual and CBS networks. Radio divisions were also created in 11 states.

    Alas, the programs were eventually shut down mostly because the disruptions of WWII allowed reactionary Senators to portray the programs as too “socialist” – an accusation now universally regarded as false by historians.

    Nevertheless, this sensibility continued for a while after the war. One example was the NBC Opera Theater which existed from 1949 to 1964. The company performed a total of 43 operas for NBC, the majority of which were broadcast on the program NBC Television Opera Theatre. The organization’s work received 3 Primetime Emmy Award nominations. All of the performances were broadcast live from a NBC studio. The program commissioned about ten new operas by composers ranging from Mennotti to Lukas Foss to Norman Dello Joio. If I remember right, Amahl and the Night Visitors was one of the operas commissioned and premiered.

    Europe continues this sort of publicly funded arts activity to this day. Americans do not realize the extent to which their country and cultural lives were strongly damaged by postwar political and economic philosophies that destroyed our systems of public arts funding – a situation that can only be described as a form of oppression. And of course, racial minorities were even more strongly affected.

    So is it just a natural phenomenon that Americans seem uninterested in the arts? Or is this lack of interest a consciously engineered social construct? I’m inclined toward the latter view, and think that organizing public funding systems regionally would give Americans a closer and deeper sense of connection to the arts in their lives. With intelligent organization and a long-term vision, we can rebuild our cultural lives. When people take a local sense of pride in their cultural institutions they support them. It builds motivation and creates audiences. To do this, we need well organized, regional public arts funding systems like every other developed country in the world has long had.

    Thank you again for your consistently interesting and valuable posts.

  3. It’s also time to have a discussion about the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act’s employment of 10,000 artists nationwide. Although the program channeled upwards of $175 million into the arts, most Americans have never heard of it. CETA funding especially benefited African-American, Latina, Asian and women artists, an aspect that might have influenced why this program has been overlooked.

    (B.C. — We’ve fallen out of touch. Let’s email.


  1. […] FDR’s Works Progress Administration was the closest Washington had come to emulating European arts subsidies. At the same time, the New Deal made a devil’s pact with race – and the WPA was no exception. – Joseph Horowitz […]

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