It's mid-1930s in the USA; the Great Depression has taken a huge toll over the last few years, leaving 25% of people out of work. What's a government to do?
The Works Progress Administration (later the Works Projects Administration) was established in 1935 to give unemployed people paid work in the public sector. The WPA's initial budget allocation was $4.9bn and over its lifetime it spent $13.4bn on bridges, public buildings – and various types of public art.
One of the most prolific areas of output resulted from the Federal Art Project which, along with paintings, murals and sculptures, turned out a huge number of public service announcement-style posters throughout its eight year history.
More than 900 of these posters are available to browse on the Library of Congress website.
The subject matter of the posters varies massively – almost laughably so; from promoting pet shows to highlighting the dangers of syphilis, that pesky 'menace to industry'.
I especially like the pre-war 'places' posters, which are not only beautiful but clearly designed to both foster a sense of pride during the low morale of an economic slump, and encourage folks to holiday closer to home. (Sound familiar?)
The style of these posters is clearly appealing and remains an influence to this day – just look at the work of Dorothy for a prime example.
Other recreational activities such as visits to the zoo, exhibitions, expos and concerts also got the artistic treatment; along with career and personal healthcare advice. I told you it was varied.
Taking care of books seemed to be a major concern if the number of reading-related posters is anything to go by.
I don't remember modern history lessons mentioning our cousins across the pond being particularly careless with books, so I guess this must have been related to the dwindling of resources and the need to take care of things, first during the depression, then throughout the war. It's similar in tone to the UK's Make do and mend mantra.
It's fascinating to browse through the posters in chronological order and see the increasing emphasis on wartime messaging; and the subsequent rapid change in these from friendly prompts to preserve resources, to much harsher, more blunt directives. Even including strongly worded appeals to lend equipment.
The WPA was liquidated in June 1943 as a result of low unemployment due to World War II.
Among those who'd been part of the Federal Art Project: Arthur Getz (who subsequently had a half-century career as cover illustrator for The New Yorker magazine), and artists Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock.