Saving Historic WPA Art

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), also called Work Projects Administration, was created in 1935 under U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. During its eight-year existence, the WPA put millions of unemployed people to work, including tens of thousands of artists. An estimated 225,000 works of art were commissioned, bringing art to public places like schools, libraries, hospitals, and post offices. Many of these diverse pieces of art are now in jeopardy of being lost because of the age and state of the buildings they were installed in.

The rescue of the W.P.A frescoes in San Francisco by a University of California is a prime example. A graduate student’s scholarly article about a series of W.P.A. frescoes at the University of California, San Francisco moved attention to a ten panel mural called “History of Medicine in California,” completed in 1938 by Bernard Zakheim, a Polish-born muralist. In one of the panels, she recognized Biddy Mason, a Black nurse, depicted alongside a white doctor, as they treat a malaria patient. Mason, an enslaved woman born in 1818, went on to become a midwife, a nurse, a philanthropist and a founder of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. The building had been scheduled to be demolished to make way for a state-of-the-art research center. Ultimatly the General Services Administration (G.S.A.) confirmed “ownership of the murals resides with G.S.A. on behalf of the United States.” The federal agency supported murals’s preservation until a new location was determined.

Over the years, our team has worked on many salvage and reuse projects, including the Harlem Hospital WPA Murals, Goldwater Hospital WPA Murals, and the Keith Haring mural removal from Grace House, supporting the preservation of important pieces of artwork and to commemorate history within our communities.