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Organize! What the Artists’ Union of the 1930s Can Teach Us Today

The present-day economic downturn is reminiscent of the Great Depression in terms of the overall morass of poverty, unemployment, and foreclosures, yet key differences separate the two eras. The 1930s was a time of massive organizing, strikes, union activity, and dissent that forced FDR and the New Deal to the left. 2009 does not provide us with such inspiring levels of resistance.

If the 1930s can teach us one key lesson, it is the need to organize. Nothing changes when people do not engage in the long and difficult work of building a diverse, multi-cultural, working class movement from the ground up. This includes artists. Fortunately, the 1930s provides us with multiple examples of how artists worked collectively to confront the economic crisis of their time.

More so, the Artists’ Union brought creativity and visual interest to street demonstrations. Members of the Artists’ Union, including a young Willem de Kooning, created effigies, floats, and banners that played a prominent role in protest marches.

The Artists’ Union, established in 1934, and primarily based out of New York City, was one of the leading voices for unemployed artists. Their primary role was to advocate for more positions within the Works Progress Administration-Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), better pay and working conditions, and lobbying against proposed cutbacks. In essence, the Artists’ Union became the mediators between artists and WPA/FAP administrators, settling grievances between workers and bosses and threatening to take direct action if needed.

Early actions included staging demonstrations against the Whitney Museum, protesting the limited scope of the funding within the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the federal art program that preceded the WPA/FAP. By January of 1935, the Artists’ Union began lobbying for permanent federal funding for the arts.1 The Artists’ Union also fought censorship by calling upon the New York City government to establish a Municipal Art Gallery in response to the destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural at the Rockefeller Center. When Mayor Fiorello La Guardia agreed to establish a public gallery, the Artists’ Union additionally fought to remove the provisions that excluded foreign-born artists from exhibiting work.

However, the Artists’ Union did not just look after the welfare of fellow artists within a government funded art program. On numerous occasions they joined in solidarity with other workers, as Joseph Solman writes:

The Artists’ Union and the National Maritime Union (NMU) were two of the most active participants in aiding striking picket lines anywhere in New York City. If the salesgirls went out on strike at May’s department store in Brooklyn a grouping from the above-mentioned unions was bound to swell the picket lines. I recall some of our own demonstrations to get artists back on the job after a number of pink dismissal slips had been given out. At such times everyone was in jeopardy. Suddenly from nowhere a truckload of NMU workers would appear and jump out onto the sidewalk to join our procession.2

More so, the Artists’ Union brought creativity and visual interest to street demonstrations. Members of the Artists’ Union, including a young Willem de Kooning, created effigies, floats, and banners that played a prominent role in protest marches.

Yet, the main focus of the Artists’ Union was always trying to improve the economic situation for artists during the Depression. For instance, one action included the Rental Policy campaign that advocated that artists be paid a modest fee for exhibiting their work within museum shows. Einar Heiberg of the Minnesota Artists’ Union reasoned:

Should a group of musicians play without recompense, for instance, simply because a hall had been provided? Should a singer give a program without remuneration simply because of the donation of a stage and possibly an accompanist? The artists felt there was no logic in the protests of the museum directors, and felt there was as much value in a given work of art as there might be in an orchestration, or a song, or a dental extraction. Prestige acquired from the hanging of a picture might bring the artists a lot of pretty words and some encouragement, but very few groceries.3

Museums immediately rejected the idea as preposterous, arguing that it lacked a precedent and insisted that artists should be thankful for the exposure and the prestige alone for showing within their hallowed halls. Yet, the Artists’ Union and two other organizations, the American Artists’ Congress and the American Society of Painters and Gravers (ASPG), held their ground and urged artists to boycott museums that did not pay the fee. Picket lines were also formed outside museum entrances, where flyers were handed out to visitors and because of these actions, a number of museums agreed to pay the fee.

Other actions were more heated. On November 29, 1936, the Artists’ Union led a sit-down strike in the New York City WPA/FAP administration offices to protest cuts that led to numerous artists being dismissed from their jobs. Over 200 artists walked into the offices uninvited and demanded that the positions be reinstated. The Administrator’s response was to call in the police who proceeded to violently assault the demonstrators (including Paul Block, the president of the Artists’ Union) and arrested everyone present.

In jail, the somber mood was defused a bit when many of those arrested gave fake last names to the gullible authorities, who then booked individuals claiming to be Picasso, Cezanne, Da Vinci, Degas and Van Gogh! The action, however, was not in vain, for the commotion and the press that it caused resulted in Mayor LaGuardia scheduling a special trip to Washington to ask the Federal Government to reinstate the funding.

Artist's Union protesting

All told, actions such as these represented a new militancy amongst artists who began to realize their strength as a collective body. Stuart Davis, the celebrated painter who served as the first editor for the Artists’ Union publication, Art Front wrote:

Artists at last discovered that, like other workers, they could only protect their basic interests through powerful organizations. The great mass of artists left out of the project found it possible to win demands from the administration only by joint and militant demonstrations.4

Davis’s call needs to arise today. Hoping that others will do this work for us is foolhardy. A change for the better will not magically appear. The maddening aspect of Barack Obama’s election campaign was the idea that “change” would derive from electoral politics, a top-down structure, and a politician embedded to nationalism and capitalism. Instead, it needs to come from below, and artists with their talents, economic status at the bottom rung, and ability to collaborate with anti-authoritarian groups can play a key role. The Artists’ Union presents a central thesis that can be adapted today, and that is the urgent need to organize.

  1. The New Deal Art Projects: An Anthology of Memoirs, Francis V. O’Connor, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972), 201.
  2. Joseph Solman, “The Easel Division of the WPA Federal Art Project” in The New Deal Art Projects: An Anthology of Memoirs, 120.
  3. Einar Heiberg, “The Minnesota Artists’ Union” in Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project, Francis V. O’Connor, ed. (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 244.
  4. Stuart Davis, “Why an Artists’ Congress?” in Artists Against War and Fascism: Papers of the First American Artists’ Congress, Matthew Baigell and Julia Williams, editors, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 66.

6 Comments on “Organize! What the Artists’ Union of the 1930s Can Teach Us Today”

  1. 1 denise lassaw said at 7:51 pm on July 20th, 2010:

    Hello !

    Can you tell me where you got the photo, just above, of Alice Mason and Ibram Lassaw holding protest signs? It is in the New Deal Art Projects but I have been unable to find the source of the original photo. I need a high resolution copy.

    thank you

    Denise

  2. 2 denise lassaw said at 7:52 pm on July 20th, 2010:

    Hello !

    Can you tell me where you got the photo, just above, of Alice Mason and Ibram Lassaw holding protest signs? It is in the New Deal Art Projects but I have been unable to find the source of the original photo. I need a high resolution copy.

    thank you

    Denise

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

  3. 3 Brett Bloom said at 2:52 am on July 21st, 2010:

    Denise,

    If you send an email to us with this question (servers@temporaryservices.org), we can forward it on to Nicolas Lampert who wrote the article.

    Best,

    Brett

  4. 4 The Right to Know – The Right to Art | IMPAKT said at 2:18 am on September 16th, 2011:

    [...] While the idea of artists unions is coming back into fashion, in art like in other fields politics seems to become more and more about transparency, along with bottom-up organization. A recent project worth mentioning, and particularly fit as an example in this case, is the ArtLeaks platform. Launched by a group of art professionals as a whistleblower targeting the abuses of cultural institutions, the site is a call for mistreated cultural workers to share and denounce any injustices. Like in other sites there is a submission form and an “archives” section, but so far the leaks seem to take the form of open letters and articles rather than raw documents, with the editorial filter being embedded in the text rather acting as a simple preliminary filter. Also, secrecy seems to be less of a core value than in better-known whistleblowers. [...]

  5. 5 Stuart Davis – “American” artist | Guava Purée said at 8:55 pm on July 3rd, 2012:

    [...] 1930s that Davis became a serious fellow-traveler of the Communist Party, collaborating with the Artists Union, the John Reed Club, and the American Artists’ Congress which was an explicitly Popular Front [...]

  6. 6 Organize! | Cultural Symptoms said at 11:09 am on July 21st, 2013:

    [...] What the Artists’ Union of the 1930s Can Teach Us Today by Nicolas Lampert Like this:Like Loading… This entry was posted in Uncategorized by culturalsymptoms. Bookmark the permalink. [...]


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