Notes from the New Deal: The WPA Artists of Provincetown
This article originally appeared in Cape Cod LIFE Arts Annual, 1997. Photography courtesy of Provincetown Art Association & Museum
These days, with right-wing political heat on the National Endowment for the Arts, government support for struggling artists seems all but a lost cause. There was a time in Washington, however, when assistance for the arts—under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—was an ongoing concern.
As part of the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal in 1935, the WPA provided what is now called “workfare” for jobless workers. Artists were included in this aid through the Federal Art Project (FAP). Locally, the program was initiated in Massachusetts in October 1935, and a number of Cape Cod artists benefited from it. Under the FAP, artists received $20-$25 a week plus a materials allowance. Some worked in their studios, while others created murals for schools and other municipal buildings.
The Artist Supervisor
The artist supervisor for Southeast Massachusetts was Vernon Smith, who lived in Orleans. He came from upstate New York and had studied at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. Following active service in France during World War I, he studied art in Paris for two years. Then, he settled in Provincetown, where he worked with Charles Hawthorne, founder of the Cape Cod School of Art. In 1921 he moved to Orleans, serving for some time as art teacher in the local schools.
The supervisor’s duties included registering the qualified artists, initiating their work cards, checking on their progress, and finally, picking up finished work for allocation in schools and other public buildings. A diligent administrator, Smith copiously noted the qualifications and work habits of his artist-clients along with personal notes on each individual. These notes occasionally went beyond the bounds of objective biography to acrimonious limits. Because of Smith’s subjectivity, his comments now provide a candid record of one artist’s opinions about his talented peers during a historic period in American art.
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