WPA Impressions: The Reality of the American Dream

March 11, 2014 to July 27, 2014

We are pleased to present a student-curated selection from our large holdings of WPA prints, which have been on long-term loan to the JSMA from the U.S. Government since 1956. This exhibition was organized in support of the Eugene Public Library's 2014 Big Read project (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby). The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.

The prosperous and optimistic “Roaring Twenties” (during which economic growth, technological advances, and consumerism boomed in American metropolitan areas) was followed by years of high unemployment, devastating drought, bank closures, and other difficulties. Leisure activities such as going to the cinema, listening to the radio, and engaging with art took on new importance as they provided a small escape from one’s troubling reality. The hardships of this period inspired the enactment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by the US government in 1935. Under this program, American artists were able to earn livable wages during the Great Depression. Printmaking allowed for increased experimentation in multiple media (including lithographs, woodblocks, and etchings) and for original artworks to be distributed widely in large numbers. The WPA artists represented in this display shared the plight of the common man and depicted realities of everyday life—both good and bad—in their artwork. “The American Dream,” popularized by writer James Truslow Adams (American, 1878-1949) in 1931 to influence and provide hope for all those who were working hard without any reward, has taken on increased significance in the ethos of the United States since the Great Depression. In "WPA Impressions: The Reality of the American Dream," isolation, woeful faces, confusion within the crowd, and desolate landscapes are contrasted with images of revelry, ambition, and hope for better times to come. In the same way that The Great Gatsby provided meaningful commentary on American life in the 1920s, WPA prints documented and interpreted human experience during the 1930s.