The work relief programs spawned by the Great Depression of the 1930s shaped a decade of public art in the New York City public schools. The state and federal governments initiated huge numbers of projects, but government support of art in schools extended beyond auditorium walls. The New Deal institutionalized public art, providing the blueprint for government sponsorship that would eventually give rise to the U.S. General Services’ Administration’s Art in Architecture Program and Percent for Art legislation in various cities and states. The federal art programs provided schools with new types of art, such as portfolios of original graphics, and reawakened interest in traditional mediums, including true fresco. Work relief for artists generated artistic diversity, and greater numbers of women and artists of color created art for New York City public schools. The decade also ushered in a more global perspective, prompting artists to think about American culture in the context of world civilizations, a new theme for public art in schools.
The federal programs launched under the Works Progress Administration (later Works Projects Administration) touched schools on many levels, ranging from improving the physical plant to advancing art education and supplementing the general education programs provided by the Board of Education. In the area of public art, however, the programs that had the largest impact on the New York City public schools were the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which operated from December 1933 to June 1934, and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), in effect from 1935 to 1943. The WPA/FAP had several different divisions, centered on music, theater, writing, and the visual arts. The visual arts division was further categorized according to fine art (portable graphics, paintings, and sculptures, as well as architectural sculpture and murals), applied art, and art education.