The Great Depression and The Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art for Alaska

"Street in Ketchikan" - Prescott M.M. Jones (Massachusetts), WPA Alaska Project, 1937, Book Cover Photo

“Street in Ketchikan” – Prescott M.M. Jones (Massachusetts), WPA Alaska Project, 1937, Book Cover Photo

Above is a wonderful painting from Alaska named Street in Ketchikan by Prescott M. M. Jones (c 1937). This painting was made by one of the twelve artists who were sent to capture Alaska in art through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This art is one of of thousands produced by various artists in the early 1930’s to help combat the economic downturn called The Great Depression.

The Great Depression-

The Great Depression was believed to have begun when stocks began to fall September 4, 1929 and eventually crashing on October 29, 1929, also known as Black Tuesday.  This in turn caused a ripple effect globally and cities worldwide were eventually affected.  Hundreds of thousands of people became unemployed and many of these people eventually became homeless. The American government was desperately trying to combat the effects of the depression. They began by asking business owners to continue paying employees and asked big banks to help the failing smaller banks, both requests didn’t work. Eventually the government had to come up with a plan to create jobs. They came up with a number of programs  called the New Deal to help stimulate the economy.  A few examples were the Federal Home Loan Bank Act, Emergency Relief Act, Construction Act, Emergency Banking Act, The Securities Act, The Agricultural Adjustment Act, The National Recovery Administration, The Public Works Program and eventually the Works Progress Administration (WPA)’s

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)- Federal Arts Project

In 1933 and 1934, the Federal Governments Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) was developed under The New Deal.  The WPA was a way to put back to work the artistic community. They were artists from all over the United States that were assigned to various areas. They would be placed to work in parks, large cities, rural towns and tiny villages.  This program created over 5,000 jobs and produced over 225,000 various works of art.

WPA in Alaska

In 1937, twelve artists were brought to Alaska. They came from Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota and Washington.  They were paid $135/month plus given travel money of $100. Their job was to paint and capture the region they traveled to by painting murals or posters for their local areas and create paintings to bring back for a touring art exhibit, displaying their Alaskan work and promoting Alaska. However the exhibit never took place and the art work was dispersed to various location, many of the art works were lost or destroyed.Many of their works were placed in public buildings such as the courthouse, post offices, public schools and hotels for the public to enjoy.  The others paintings or posters were sent to various places in the lower 48.

Alaskan Fishing Village Dawn by Karl Fortess (c 1937)

Alaskan Fishing Village Dawn by Karl Fortess (c 1937)

Finding The lost WPA Alaskan ART

Above is the painting Alaskan Fishing Village Dawn by Karl Fortess.  This painting was recently discovered after 70 years of being lost. Karl Fortess eventually headed the WPA art program in New York State.

 Signing Eskimos into The Alaska Territorial Guard Creator Jones, Joe

Signing Eskimos into The Alaska Territorial Guard
by Joe Jones, (origination date unknown)


Many artists that worked for the WPA ended up working with the War Department leading up to WWII. Above is the painting Signing Eskimos into The Alaskan Territorial Guard by Joe Jones.  His work along with other artists works were used on war time posters.

Saving and Exhibiting the WPA Alaskan Art

To this day there is no known number of exactly how many paintings were made through the WPA for Alaska.  Even though the original twelve artists plan to have a touring art exhibit of their Alaskan work never happened. Them and other artists who captured Alaska’s beauty on canvas was not in vain and nor will it be forgotten. Thanks to efforts made by the Alaska Museum of History, they began searching and tracking down WPA art and the museum currently houses 1800 prints, paintings, drawings and sketches.

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “The Great Depression and The Works Progress Administration (WPA) Art for Alaska

  1. Wow! I really like that you related this blog so closely to home here in Alaska! It made it easy to relate to. I’m surprised at how easy it is to see the early modern style in the paintings of Alaska; most of the Alaskan art we see now is much different. Although you didn’t state it exactly, I assume each of those paintings was created in the town that was in the title. Well done!

  2. So Amazing!!!!!! I LOVE that way you related the Works Project Administration to Alaska. I had never hard about anyone coming to Alaska to paint! This is awesome. 🙂 The paintings are beautiful and the story ended on a great note, that all is not lost due to paintings were being tracked down and put into the museum for safe keeping. Well done!!!

  3. Loved your choice and ability to focus on Alaska. I searched for Alaskan WPA murals and paintings, and found it hard to find any, so awesome job seeking those out and the history to go along with them. The fact that the paintings you found were so lovely makes it all the better. Also appreciated your stats on the WPA, I failed to include that in my own blog. Thanks for your blog it was really enjoyable.

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