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For the People: Nebraska's New Deal Art


To most Americans, the stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. While the crash certainly affected Nebraska, by the early 1930s other factors contributed to the state's bleak situation. Farm prices plummeted. Farmers were financially overextended, and faced drought and dust storms.

Like the rest of the country, Nebraska supported the progressive ideas of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR began his presidency with a sweeping agenda of assistance programs known as the New Deal.

The New Deal included assistance to the jobless through federally-backed employment. In early 1933, the government established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and its sub-agency the Civil Works Administration (CWA). They funded temporary minimum wage employment programs during 1933 - 34. The first federal art project was the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP). It was part of the CWA and ran from December 1933 until June 1934.

The art in this exhibit was produced for the PWAP, and remains property of the United States Government. The Nebraska State Historical Society maintains this collection on long-term loan so that it can be exhibited periodically for the benefit of all Nebraskans.

"Not a few people were amazed, and I still am, to learn of the number of people in Nebraska who were employed on . . . the art project . . . We seldom think of Nebraska as the home of much artistic endeavor and yet we discover a wealth of talent and ability . . ."
Ernest Witte, Administrator of the Nebraska Emergency Relief Administration

Work . . . Or The Lack Thereof

Unemployment and financial hardship were all around. Government work relief programs were just beginning. It isn't surprising that many Nebraska artists reflected the American Scene with pictures of work or relief.

The Noon Shift

Louis Smetana, Omaha
Watercolor on paper
35 x 27 framed

The Mat

Louis Smetana, Omaha
Watercolor on paper
15x 21.75

Completing the Revetment

Louis Smetana, Omaha
Watercolor on paper
26.5 x 35 framed

 Louis Smetana was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1878. He came to Omaha in 1911 and spent the rest of his life there. Smetana was an architectural draftsman, amateur painter and ichthyologist.


Going to Work

Ernest Stevens, Neligh
Ink on paper
27 x 37.25 framed

Ernest Stevens produced this hopeful (or reminiscent) image while living in Neligh and working for the PWAP. Born in Iowa, he attended the Platte Institute and studied in Paris at the Academie Julien with Max Bohm. By 1935 Stevens was in Wyoming. He painted WPA murals for the high school auditorium in Torrington, and directed the federal art gallery there until his death.


Unskilled Labor Bureau

Elizabeth Olds, Omaha
15 x 12 unframed

Tuberculosis Tests for Children

Elizabeth Olds, Omaha
17 x 10 unframed

Boy Artist at Transient Shelter

Elizabeth Olds, Omaha
9 x 12 unframed

CWA Dental Clinic

Elizabeth Olds, Omaha
16.5 x 12 unframed

The Preachers Message to the Homeless Men

Elizabeth Olds, Omaha
12.5 x 22 unframed

Elizabeth Olds was an artist of the Social Realist ilk who produced these scenes of relief while working for the PWAP in Omaha. Born in Minneapolis in 1896, she studied at the Minneapolis Art Institute and in New York. In 1926 she became the first woman to win the Guggenheim Fellowship for work and study abroad, and spent the next four years in France. In 1932 she came to Omaha on a commission to paint portraits of Samuel Rees' family. Mr. Rees was in the printing business and Olds learned the art of lithography there. She moved back to New York City in 1935 and worked for the WPA graphics program. Later in life she wrote and illustrated children's books and worked as an illustrator-reporter.


The Forgotten Man

Gustav Berk, Omaha
Oil on Canvas
36.75 x 31 framed

A statement, perhaps, on the plight of the white-collar worker who was initially underserved by government aid programs.

Virtual Exhibits


  Work - or Lack Thereof

  Illustrating Hope

  Nebraska Environment


  Industry / Progress





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All artwork in this exhibit is Courtesy of the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration Commissioned through the New Deal art projects.
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Last updated 26 April 2011

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