NEXT: The Legacy
PREV: The First Relief Projects
Table of Contents

Librarian MacLeish and the Library of Congress Project

Image: caption follows

Despite the efforts of Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, the massive files of the Index of American Design went to the National Gallery of Art instead of the Library of Congress. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

The New Deal arts projects were part of a renewed search for national traditions during a troubled decade, and much of the resulting material-the musical compositions, guidebooks, archival surveys, and even many of the theatrical productions-reflected a sense of rediscovery of America's cultural heritage. But the projects also raised broader questions about the relationship between American culture and politics. Could the arts enrich the lives of ordinary citizens? Could creative artists integrate themselves into American society? Was it appropriate or even desirable for the federal government to provide direct support to the arts? These questions were introduced, not resolved, during the 1930s, but the fact that they were seriously debated is one of the reasons why cultural historians are so interested in the New Deal era. In 1939 President Roosevelt appointed his friend and adviser Archibald MacLeish to be Librarian of Congress, an action that ensured the continuation of the debate about government support for the arts and added a new dimension to the relationship between the arts projects and the Library of Congress.

The Federal arts projects were on the wane by the time MacLeish was appointed. The honeymoon ended in 1937 when a conservative and increasingly hostile Congress, questioning the need for the projects and the loyalty and efficiency of many project employees, reduced Federal One's appropriation. By 1939 politics, art, and bureaucracy had become hopelessly entwined. On June 30, Congress abolished the Federal Theatre Project, concentrated the administration of the remaining projects in the states, and stipulated that at least one-fourth of the funding come from local sources. As a result, two of the national directors resigned and the WPA administrators in Washington frantically looked for ways to complete their most important projects.

Image: caption follows

Besides performing music throughout the country and encouraging new musical compositions, the Federal Music Project cataloged musical scores. These copyists are working in Philadelphia. National Archives and Records Service.

Image: caption follows

When the Federal Music Project was created, there were fewer than a dozen recognized symphony orchestras in the United States. By the spring of 1938, thirty-four symphony orchestras under the Federal Music Project were employing over twenty-five hundred musicians. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Image: caption follows

The Federal Music Project introduced opera to many audiences for the first time. John LaQuatra designed this poster in 1939 for the WPA in Ohio. Poster Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Librarian of Congress MacLeish, a New Dealer with a special appreciation of the value of the arts projects, was receptive to their ideas. In October 1939, shortly after the new Librarian assumed his duties, the Library of Congress Project was established by the District of Columbia Works Projects Administration. Its primary purpose was to edit, index, and make available for use certain material from Federal One and other WPA cultural projects, but it also continued the national editorial functions of the Federal Writers' Project and the Historical Records Survey. On December 1, MacLeish hired the former national director of the records survey, Luther H. Evans, to be director of the Library's Legislative Reference Service, and Evans quickly became the Librarian's chief adviser on WPA matters. MacLeish and Evans soon decided that the national editorial work was "not of the first interest to the Library," and successive reorganizations of the Library of Congress Project in February and August 1940 eliminated this function and restricted the project's scope to preparing the material produced by Federal One for addition to the Library's collections. Archibald MacLeish had found a way to preserve the "raw cultural material" he had praised in his 1937 article in Fortune.

Image: caption follows

The Federal Theatre Project, the "People's Theatre," provided something for everyone: circus, vaudeville, musical comedy, classical and contemporary drama, social protest drama, modern dance, children's theater, and traveling troupes of players. Dorothea Lange took this photograph in San Bernardino, California, in February 1932. Farm Security Administration Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Convinced that the state programs would wither and that their materials would be lost unless they were sent to Washington, MacLeish and WPA officials arranged for duplicate records from the states to come to the Library of Congress. For the Federal Writers' Project alone, over twenty different categories of materials were requested, ranging from life history interviews to statistical checklists.

There was one major WPA cultural product that evaded MacLeish: the Federal Art Project's Index of American Design, a massive collection of artistic renderings that documented the main types of American decorative art from the colonial period through the Gilded Age. He probably would have acquired it except for a dispute with FAP director Holger Cahill. MacLeish wanted the plates for the Library's collections but felt that their publication was incidental to this purpose. Cahill insisted that publication come first. The result, as detailed in Richard D. McKinzie's book The New Deal for Artists (1973), was that in 1943 the Index of American Design went to the National Gallery of Art.

In the fall of 1940, the eighty employees of the Library of Congress Project made rapid progress in sorting and evaluating the materials coming into their possession. Hundreds of WPA publications were added to the Library's classified collections and uncounted numbers of unfinished documents, indexes, and manuscripts were absorbed into specialized research collections. In the Music Division, for example, project staff members worked in several diverse areas. They sorted over 173,000 pieces of music out of the division's huge collection of copyright deposits. They expanded an earlier WPA checklist of recorded songs in the Archive of American Folksong. And they revived work on the Bio-Bibliographical Index of Musicians begun in 1936 by the Historical Records Survey. The index was published in 1941. One project never completed was the Index of American Composers, originally started by the Federal Music Project. Today the twenty thousand typed cards describing compositions by composers whose works were performed by WPA musicians are in the Music Division.

Image: caption followsImage: caption follows
"Volpone" and "Night Must Fall" Posters:
Classical and contemporary drama are vividly portrayed in these two posters advertising Federal Theatre Project productions.

Library officials expected the Library of Congress Project to last at least until December 1941, but in June of that year it appeared that a forth-coming reduction in the District of Columbia's WPA employment might bring it to a sudden halt. One June 18, Acting Librarian of Congress Verner W. Clapp urged WPA officials to continue the project, pointing out that unless the material was made permanently useful, what had been achieved through investments already made in the state projects would "be almost as valueless as if the original work had not been done." But six days later the Library was informed that the Library of Congress Project would end "at the close of business on Thursday, July 3, 1941."

Although the project was over, the strong interest of the Library of Congress had been established. So had a certain momentum, because for the next five years the creative remnants of Federal One continued to arrive at the Library of Congress-by the truckload. A conservative estimate is that between 1939 and 1941 over five thousand cubic feet of arts projects materials were forwarded to the Library from WPA offices throughout the nation. Material came from all five projects, although only a minimal amount was received from the Federal Art Project.

On October 8-9, 1941, at the request of WPA Commissioner Howard O. Hunter, Librarian MacLeish convened a panel of WPA officials and prominent writers,
Image: caption follows

The Federal Theatre Project excelled in popular entertainment, and vaudeville was an important part of the show. Library of Congress Federal Theatre Project Collection at George Mason University Libraries, Fairfax, Virginia.

artists, and musicians at the Library to discuss "the future relationship of the federal government to the practice of the arts" in the United States, with special reference to the WPA arts projects. Museum directors Francis Taylor and John Walker, writers John Steinbeck, Freda Kirchwey, Malcolm Cowley, and Van Wyck Brooks, and musicians Howard Hanson and Roy Harris were among those who attended. Thomas Hart Benton, John Mason Brown, Felix Frankfurter, and Reinhold Niebuhr were invited but could not come. Lewis Mumford declined, even after a second, "begging" letter from MacLeish, because he was unwilling to take time away from "my next big book, which will deal with the higher life of man."

The meeting, as depicted in the records in the Library of Congress Archives, was a difficult one. It often bogged down in debates about the conflicting aspects of the arts projects ("Are we feeding needy artists or creating artistic expression?") and frequently was interrupted by accusations, as when chairman MacLeish charged the WPA administrators with being more interested in their programs than in the artists they employed. But general agreement was reached on seven "beliefs":

1. ...that the government has a relationship and a useful activity toward the artist apart from his ability to eat and work;

2. ...that there should be a new agency of the government, the purpose of which should be to encourage the arts, literature, and sciences. Such encouragement should be offered by means of subsidies to individuals and tax-exempt institutions and by projects capable of providing work in time of need;

3. ...that such projects should be judged on the basis of their usefulness to the people of this country;

4. ...that among useful projects the preference should be given to those which in normal times can be carried on with a small professional and administrative staff, but which can be immediately expanded in times of depression;

5. ...that the small permanent staff of the projects should be employed on a basis of civil service;

6. ...that the drying up of private patronage to the arts, largely resulting from increased taxation, makes government help much more essential than in the past;

7. ...that music depends more on local interest and participation than the other arts, and therefore requires somewhat special treatment, with the emphasis on creating local institutions and extending grants-in-aid to those which exist already.

Two months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the nation's attention turned to more urgent concerns. By 1943 all the state WPA projects had ended. It was not until the 1960s that the question of direct government support for the arts was once again seriously addressed. The federal agencies established as a result-the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities-still face many of the issues that troubled their ancestors, the agencies that administered the federal projects of the 1930s.


NEXT: The Legacy
PREV: The First Relief Projects
Table of Contents