Museum exhibit features WPA fine-art prints

September 28, 2011|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Salvatore Pintos Locomotive, a wood engraving on display at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, is part of a show of Works Progress Administration prints opening to the public on Saturday.
Salvatore Pinto¿s ¿Locomotive,¿ a wood engraving on display at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, is part of a show of Works Progress Administration prints opening to the public on Saturday.

To Lauren Ippolito, the show she organized for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts reminds her of contemporary America.

The images depict life in 1930s and ’40s America, but it is the creation of the prints that tugs on Ippolito’s sense of irony. These prints were produced by artists hired by the U.S. Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, when many professional artists were unemployed.

“There’s a lot of parallels to things you can relate to today,” Ippolito said.

The federal government created the WPA as a stimulus program — to hire artists, to create American art and to provide artwork for public buildings around the country.

“Prints were made in runs of 25 to 30,” she said. “These ended up in libraries, museums, schools, post offices and other public spaces.”

Today, as in the 1930s, the national economy is depressed and professional artists have a hard time making a living as artists. But unlike in the 1930s, there is no talk of a federal program to hire artists.

And that’s too bad, Ippolito said.

“(The Federal Art Project) played a major role in revitalizing printmaking in America,” she said. “As a result of the FAP, visual arts flourished in America during the 1930s.”

There were four government-funded programs to give work to American artists during the Great Depression, Ippolito said. The FAP was the largest. It was organized in 1935 as a network of studios and fine arts facilities where painters, sculptors, muralists and graphic artists could produce work.

“They were freed from following what popular taste dictated, and they could produce art that was relatable to the public,” Ippolito said. “I like the fact they’re all representational but in different styles. They were popular themes chosen by artists.”

FAP paintings, sculptures and murals were placed throughout the country. A three-panel mural from FAP artist Frank Long is still on display in the downtown post office in Hagerstown.

The studios continued in operation to 1943. In that year, a batch of 77 prints were allocated to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. The prints still belong to the federal government, Ippolito said, but the museum cares for them.

The images in the museum’s show are mostly black and white lithographs or woodcuts. Some are in color. Ippolito said the images show scenes of American rural and city life.

“I think the artists were aware of social concerns and problems going on — labor, economic hardships, the industrial landscape, scenes of leisure, natural disasters,” she said.

The prints will go on display Saturday, Oct. 1, and run through Sunday, March 4.

If you go ...        

WHAT: “Art for America: A Selection of WPA Prints”

WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 1, through Sunday, March 4

WHERE: Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, City Park, Hagerstown

COST: Free; donations requested

CONTACT: Go to or call 301-739-5727

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