This digital collection focuses on Wisconsin arts projects of the Works Project Administration (WPA). Featured are materials from the holdings of the Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections departments, including artwork, manuscripts and published materials, and audio recordings of interviews..

Wisconsin and The Works Progress Administration

Although not the first government initiative to extend funding to artists following the stock market crash of 1929 (the Civil Work Administration and Public Works of Art programs were both founded in 1933 and disbanded the following year, while the Section of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1934, would actually outlive the WPA), the Works Progress Administration (later renamed “Work Projects Administration”) was one of the first major public programs to include funding for public arts in its scope. The WPA’s main purpose was to provide employment for Americans affected by the economic crash through projects to improve the country’s infrastructure. However, the WPA included a smaller project called Federal Project Number One that focused on supporting the arts and was broken up into five divisions: the Federal Arts Project (FAP), Federal Music Project (FMP), Federal Theatre Project (FTP), Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), and the Historical Records Survey (HRS). The project was allocated $27 million and had chapters in states around the country.

In Wisconsin, the FAP employed around 75 artists (out of some 10,000 nation-wide) whose works were then allocated to tax-supported public institutions. One of the goals of the Project was to rally public sympathy by funding patriotic public art projects. Examples of fine artwork could subsequently be seen throughout the local communities and facilities used by the FAP, such as the Federal Art Gallery in Milwaukee, and were also available for other local groups to use. This enabled local organizations and other branches of the WPA to interact with and benefit from the publicity created by the FAP. Art centers, exhibitions, and outreach classes encouraged emerging artists and created an appreciation for the visual arts that has had a lasting impact on American society. The FAP was federally funded in Wisconsin from 1935-1939, when it became state funded and was renamed the Wisconsin WPA Art Program.

One of the public works projects active in Wisconsin under the WPA that interacted with the local FAP chapter was the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project, or MHP. Founded in 1935 by Harriet Clinton, head of the Women’s Division of Wisconsin’s WPA, the MHP was created to help unskilled woman laborers provide income for their families. The MHP also sought to provide work for women thought unemployable due to age or disability. Through the MHP, women would learn how to craft quality, artfully-designed objects such as rugs, draperies, dolls, and toys out of inexpensive materials. After securing the sponsorship of the Milwaukee State Teacher’s College, Clinton hired Elsa Ulbricht, one of the college’s art professors, to direct the project. Ulbricht in turn recruited unemployed art education students from the college to design crafts and serve as foremen in MHP workshops. Ulbricht intended not only to provide workers with the skills needed to create the items, but an understanding and appreciation of the artistic design of the items as well. The MHP was highly successful, hiring around 5,000 people in total throughout its seven year existence, including African-Americans—unlike most WPA programs, the MHP was racially integrated, which dramatically increased the number of workers hired.

In the early days of the project, the items crafted by MHP were driven by local demand. Bookbinding, for example, began as a way to produce scrapbooks for a variety of institutions including the Milwaukee County House of Correction. One of the most notable bindings created was that done for a songbook called Come and Sing, written by elementary students at the Milwaukee State Teachers College training school. Eventually, the MHP began to receive orders for their items from across the United States. However, in 1937 Milwaukee State Teachers College withdrew their sponsorship of the MHP, though the school remained involved in the design and supervision of MHP products, and Milwaukee County took over funding the project until the MHP was dissolved in 1942.

The Milwaukee Handicrafts Project also put on various exhibits and demonstrations of their items. The first exhibit was put on at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1936 and was highly successful. In addition to local showings, MHP items were exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute during its first year, while the Indianapolis Museum of Art sponsored an exhibit in 1937. The Project also received several distinguished visitors, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Eleanor Roosevelt, who praised the program in her syndicated column.

The original aim for the Milwaukee Handicrafts project was to provide employment for 250 workers. Within 3 weeks of its opening, the MHP employed 800 workers including African American men and women. By the time the MHP was disbanded in 1943 it had employed 5,000 people, many of whom were hired by local manufacturers once they had learned a trade.