The Works Progress Administration or WPA was launched in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide employment during the depression. Under the WPA there were new roads, dams and other public works project. It also put artists, actors, writers and musicians to work contributing their share to the cultural development of the nation.*
Artists were paid by the hour, on average, $26 a week and many were given their professional start by the WPA. On WNYC's Forum of the Air in 1938 the actor Burgess Meredith credited the WPA with promoting new art. "Although the WPA art project was primarily designed to give employment to unemployed artists, the result has been the establishment of the beginning of a vital art movement which is unparalleled in history."
At the time there was a lot of controversy about funding abstract works. Yet, one of the few places open to such new ideas was WNYC.
Of all the artists who were engaged to do the murals at WNYC, Stuart Davis was the most well known. He was also a leading proponent of abstract art. He spoke at the dedication of the murals on August 2, 1939 (above audio). "I say it is of crucial cultural importance when a city institution like the Municipal Broadcasting Company comes forward in sponsorship of abstract art. It is in harmony with the broad democratic cultural policy of WNYC."
Davis' painting was eleven by seven feet and hung in WNYC's Studio B. With antennas and wave, it pulled together images of radio and sound equipment. Music represented by a very stylized saxophone.
In 1965 the mural moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on long-term loan. It hangs in an area where it’s surrounded by some of Davis’ other work, and it’s seen by millions of visitors every year. For more on Davis please see: Art in Public: Stuart Davis on Abstract Art and the WPA, 1939.
John von WICHT
In Studio C, there was a very different kind of wall panel by John Von Wicht. He was one of the many immigrant painters who worked for the WPA, and his work was a lot more geometric. The shapes seem to be simultaneously floating in space and anchored. At the time, von Wicht said he was trying to emulate the style of Bach in his work. Today the mural is at the Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza branch. It may be difficult to think that it was created for a radio station, but if you look at it closely you can see some microphones and, of course, a record.
There’s a lot of movement in Louis Schanker’s mural. He was a very animated personality and he liked to paint big. In fact, at WNYC, a group of his fans who called themselves the Kibitzers Club used to come and watch him paint. He was an eccentric kind of guy. He ran away from home and to join the circus, where he looked after the elephants. If you look closely at this picture, there is a lute and a zither, a cello, and a harp, and the suggestion of ghostly musicians keeping them in play. Today the mural can be seen in its original location near the north elevator banks on the 25th floor of the Municipal Building at 1 Centre Street in Manhattan.
Of all the artists, Byron Browne was the only one who tailored his work to fit the studio. He painted directly onto the acoustic tiles that were the soundproofing of the room. The mural (as well as the von Wicht) and some of WNYC's Warren McArthur furniture had been used as part of 1986/87 Brooklyn Museum show The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941. Unfortunately, the mural did not return to WNYC but was moved to the city office of Management and Budget on the north side of the Municipal Building. Eventually, there were changes to those offices and the work was stored with the Art Commission of the City of New York. The mural was recently conserved and installed in the new Staten Island Courthouse.
The real mystery works are the two panels by Louis Ferstadt. They were never hung although originally commissioned and intended for the Director’s Office. The smaller, incomplete panel features an ear in the center, a radio announcer or operator and a girl on a swing with her legs like a phonograph needle on spinning record. The second panel shows musicians, an ear and around the outside are figures of people. It was titled “Radio Service to the Public." Of all the murals, it is the least abstract. One might liken it to the more social realist works of the period with a political message. In this case, that radio is here to bring people together and enlighten them.
Louis Ferstadt is probably better known as a comic book artist than as a muralist. Many in the world of comics and graphic novels revere him for his pioneering work in the field. We can't help but think that the work he did for the American Communist Party paper, The Daily Worker in the 1930s, may have something to do with why the WNYC mural never got mounted, and to this day, cannot be located. Perhaps, dear reader, you know where it is?
She was a gregarious young abstract artist who was influenced by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian with whom she used to go dancing in Harlem. Later she married Jackson Pollock. Krasner worked hard and did many sketches for her WNYC assignment. They began as a series of still-lifes and gradually became more abstract. Unfortunately, she never got to complete her painting because the WPA mural project came to an end with World War II. However today, at her bequest, her estate sells sketches for the murals and donates the money to support needy young artists. Two of these reproductions can be viewed on the eighth floor stairwell landing at the WNYC and WQXR studios in Manhattan.
Finally, one last contribution of the WPA Federal Art Project to WNYC remains on site. It is a cast aluminum sculpture "Harpist" by Max Baum and can be viewed in New York Public Radio's eighth floor reception area.
*The WPA played a major role in WNYC's history and ensured that the station not only stayed on the air, but grew significantly and prospered. WPA funding also underwrote drama and music programming, the rebuilding of our studios and the construction of a state-of-the-art transmitter facility in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
This article is based on a slideshow script originally written by former WNYC Senior Archivist Cara McCormick.
Audio courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.