WPA Artists at the BMA

January 11, 1995

"Alone in the Crowd," the Baltimore Museum of Art's exhibition of African-American prints from the 1930s and '40s, illustrates the value of government support of the arts. The show, which presents 104 works by 42 African-American artists, is a small part of the enormous body of work produced under the auspices of the federal Works Progress Administration, which subsidized the activities of thousands of American artists, writers and composers during the Great Depression.

African-American artists represented a minuscule fraction of the total population of artists in the 1930s and 1940s. Those making prints were especially small in number. Printmaking as an art was still relatively new in the 1930s, and virtually all of the artists in the BMA show were indebted to WPA programs for access to printmaking equipment and materials. Yet they managed to create a remarkable record of the years leading up to World War II, documenting poignant scenes of everyday life as well as registering their protest against the harsh injustices of the day. Taken together, these works recall a spiritual heritage that all Americans share.

Though widely distributed, many of the original prints were later lost or destroyed. The BMA show is made up of rare works drawn from the private collection of Reba and Dave Williams of New York. The couple became fascinated by the subject of African American prints several years ago and helped organize the traveling exhibition.

What does any of this have to do with government support of the arts? Well, virtually every museum "Alone in the Crowd" will visit during its 18-city tour -- including the BMA -- gets at least some funding from the National Endowment of the Arts. So the NEA is actually helping to make it possible for Americans today to enjoy works that probably never would have been created had it not been for the WPA.

That may be the best answer to skeptics like House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has suggested the new GOP Congress should abolish the NEA. "We are out there living high on the hog, funding all of these activities around the country, only to pass the bill on to our kids and grandkids," Mr. Gingrich's colleague, Republican conference chairman John A. Boehner of Ohio, complained recently. But Mr. Boehner forgets that through its support of the arts, the government is also passing down a priceless cultural legacy to future generations.

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