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Last month, an exhibition titled “Art for the Millions: American Culture and Politics in the 1930s” opened at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. It includes four posters depicting America’s national parks that were designed during the Works Progress Administration, a program created in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt following the Great Depression.
One of the featured artists, Riva Helfond, worked in New York City’s W.P.A. graphics division. She holds a special place in my family history. Helfond was a dear friend of my grandfather, Alfred Manuel Muñoz, a visual artist who worked for the W.P.A. in New Jersey. But unlike Riva Helfond’s work, and unlike some of the national parks posters, the art produced by my grandfather has been lost.
During the bleakest years of the Depression, with high unemployment plaguing the country, the W.P.A. sought to put Americans back to work and lift them out of poverty. The W.P.A. projects in the arts, known collectively as Federal Project Number One, employed artists, writers, actors and musicians, many of whom – including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Charles White – pursued their art after the project’s demise.
My grandfather was hired under the Federal Art Project. Artists in that program were independent contractors who were paid a weekly stipend of about $24 to adorn public places with paintings and murals. Their artwork was meant to inspire national pride, promote social justice, document the country’s recovery efforts and serve as a means of communication by the government.
W.P. A. artists also created motivational posters that promoted exhibitions, theatrical productions, health and educational programs and travel and tourism. Fourteen posters were created to highlight the beauty of national parks, many of which were inaccessible before road construction was made possible by the W.P.A. An estimated 1,400 silkscreen posters were created, but only a fraction of them have been accounted for. Doug Leen, a former ranger at Grand Teton, stumbled on one of those posters in 1971 while cleaning up an old barn. He has since been on a lifelong quest to save the National Parks posters. It took him close to 50 years to recover 12 of the 14 original poster designs, most of which have now been donated to the Library of Congress or the National Parks Service.
As the granddaughter of a W.P.A. artist, I applaud Doug Leen’s efforts in recovering lost art, and wish my grandfather’s paintings had been part of his treasure trove.
ANNE CHECLER is the producer and editor of “The Case of the Missing Park Posters: Ex-Ranger Hunts for New Deal-Era Art.”