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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Culture and Arts during the Depression

The Depression led not only to new arts funding, but a radical rethinking of how to express the social experience of the Depression itself. "Mission House, Skid Road, Seattle, Wash. 1930," watercolor by Ronald Ginther. (Property of Washington State Historical Society, all rights reserved.)

The 1930s were a period of intense artistic experimentation, as new forms and methods were explored, transformative cultural institutions were founded, and artists self-consciously sought to reach broader layers of the public. The rise of social unrest during the Depression heightened the political concerns of artistic works, while New Deal programs gave artists both federal recognition and the funding and space to work out new cultural forms. Technical changes, like the popularization of the radio, changed how accessible culture was and to whom, and an international break from formalism and modernism also worked to produce a popularized, socially conscious tendency in American art. During the Depression decade, Washington State, often seen as marginal to national art history, hosted some of the most innovative theatre, musical, and performing arts work in the nation, with sometimes global resonance.

It is one of the ironies of the Great Depression that the emblematic cultural institution of Washington State, the Seattle Art Museum, was created and privately funded during the darkest days of the economic crisis, when tens of thousands were losing jobs and homes. SAM was a gift to the city from art collector Richard Fuller and his wealthy mother Margaret Fuller. In 1931, they hired UW architect Richard Gould to design a museum sited in Volunteer Park and pledged much of their personal art collection to the city. The building, which now houses the Seattle Asian Art Museum, opened to the public in 1933.

The SAM story reminds us that not everyone suffered or even lost money during the Depression and reminds us too that philanthropy accelerated in the 1930s, as some of those who retained wealth gave to charities to aid the unfortunate and others gave to the arts to rescue cultural institutions that struggled amidst the economic decline.

But more important than philanthropy was the new role that government funds and government programs would play after 1933. For the first time in American history, art was deemed worthy of public support, and New Deal federal dollars enabled an explosion of artistic endeavors, from painting to music to theatre to architecture. The 1930s would prove to be a pivotal decade for Washington State’s arts and culture, leaving the region with new institutions, lasting artistic accomplishments, and a new public understanding that art was no longer just for the wealthy.

Cornish College 

Washington’s cultural ferment of the 1930s and the New Deal era would not have been possible without the existence, decades before, of smaller institutions and artists collectives, most notably the small and struggling private Cornish College of the Arts, in Seattle. Founded as a music school in 1914 by Nellie Cornish, the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle grew to encompass all the performing and visual arts, and served as the center of the Northwest’s growing art scene. Despite its financial and social ties to the more traditional Seattle Fine Arts Society, and the sometimes-conservative leanings of its Board of Directors, Cornish also hosted performing artists who were breaking from traditional forms and experimenting with new modes of performance, presentation, and style.

From a glance at the list of faculty and students during the 1930s, it is clear that Cornish was a seedbed for both regional as well as national cultural transformations during the Depression years: modern dancer Martha Graham taught at Cornish in the summer if 1930 and was commissioned to give a solo Seattle performance; innovative composer John Cage taught at the school and developed his “prepared piano” there in 1938; Seattle native Merce Cunningham began his dance training at Cornish in 1937-1939, and was discovered there by Martha Graham, who promoted his career in New York; and hosted Northwest native and modernist photographer Imogen Cunningham as an artist-in-residence in the late 1920s; and Florence and Burton James began their theatre experiments as faculty at Cornish before founding the Seattle Repertory Playhouse.[1] The “Northwest School” of painters—Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth and Margaret Callahan—based at Cornish and in the rural Skagit Valley, sought out a new aesthetic that combined natural forms with the influences of Asian art, and added another dimension to the innovations of 1930s and 1940s culture.

Cornish School of Music in 1920, downtown on Broadway and Pine, before relocating to Roy St. on Capitol Hill. Nellie Cornish founded the school in 1914, and it functioned as a center of new arts movements in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

With the market crash of 1929, the drastically contracted market for the arts and lack of money for patronage may have prompted some of the independence and radical revisions of artistic forms and new visions of what music, images, and movement could be. As Kenneth Callahan, a member of the loose Northwest School and assistant director of the Seattle Art Museum wrote in 1936, “Since 1929 artists, for the greater part, have come to the realization that there is no longer a market for their output. Whereas formerly artists attempted to see, interpret and execute their work and style that conformed to the tastes of the moment, many thereby making a fair living, today the situation is very different… [T]here is little actual buying of the art of contemporary artists. As a result, more and more painters are devoting themselves to problems of painting, crafts, and interpretation.”[2]

New Deal Arts Funding

 As part of the public relief programs of the New Deal, artists, musicians, actors, and writers were employed by the federal government in an array of projects designed to create jobs. These programs started in a small way in 1933 and then became more common after 1935. Work relief was one of the goals, but leaders of these programs often also hoped to sponsor indigenous, regional talent and encourage the growth of a national, popular artistic culture. The guiding philosophies of the Federal Art, Federal Theatre, Federal Writers’, and Federal Music Projects (all 1935–1939) promoted publicly engaged and publicly accessible arts. New ideas about the social responsibilities of artists and new styles and subject matter—conveyed by the artistic label “social realism”—were part of this aesthetic transformation.

The artistic legacy of the New Deal can be seen today in the murals that adorn public buildings throughout the state, including schools, libraries, and post offices. Hundreds of artists worked on these murals, which in the spirit of the time, were usually painted in a realistic style and depicted groups of men and women working together in common cause, either in 1930s contemporary scenes or in re-visions of the past history. See Visual Arts in the Great Depression, a special section of this website.

The painters of what became known as the Northwest School worked in a different aesthetic, often interested more in nature than people, exploring the light and color of the Puget Sound with tones and techniques strongly influenced by Japanese artist traditions. They would give the region its first widely recognized artistic movement—minor in the scheme of American art history—but an important contribution to regional pride and along with Cornish (where several taught) a factor that would, in the future, attract artistic talent to the region.  

William Cumming may be the most significant of the new artists of the Great Depression. A protégé of the Northwest School, he veered back and forth between modernism and social realism, committed to what biographer Matthew Kangas calls “the image of consequence, that is, subjects that ordinary people could relate to in their own lives, images that could resonate without the taint of moralizing propaganda.”[3]  

Propaganda was precisely the purpose of two other artists who have left us riveting images of street life and political activism of the 1930s. Woodcut artist Richard Correll began illustrating the Seattle Communist Party’s newspaper, the Voice of Action, producing a new artistic style and political statement with broad appeal. Indeed, Correll’s work became so popular that he began teaching woodcutting classes. Dark, powerful, and complex, his remarkable graphics tell stories of strikes and struggles for economic and social justice.[4]  

Ronald Ginther painted in obscurity throughout the 1930s. A self-taught artist who worked with ink and watercolors, his collection of more than 80 vividly colored scenes are a unique resource, depicting the rough life of Hoovervilles and homeless men, of jails and soup kitchens, unemployed demonstrations and police attacks, strikes and radical protests—all of which he knew well. 

Theatre, Photography, Music, Film

As discussed in Theatre Arts in the Great Depression, a special section of this website, Washington’s division of the Federal Theatre Project was one of the nation’s most successful and extensive programs that drew on old Northwest theatre traditions like vaudeville as well as Depression-era civil rights concerns to shape its programs. Washington State’s Federal Theatre Project included a traveling vaudeville company, the all-African American Negro Repertory Company, a Children’s Theatre, and produced “Living Newspapers” that dramatized regional current events.

Seattle's jazz culture flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the multiracial neighborhood culture of Jackson Street in Seattle's Central District. Pictured here is Edythe Turnham and her Knights of Syncopation, c. 1925. Turnham toured the Northwest with her band and played up and down the West Coast and on President Line Cruises, embodying travel routes that linked Washington musicians to the rest of the nation and the country. (Image courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collections.)

Washington’s Depression was also the subject for two famous American artists who lent their talents to promote federal projects, mingling their own social and artistic concerns—sometimes uneasily, sometimes happily—with the needs of the New Deal government. Dorothea Lange, whose photographs of California’s Depression migrants have become iconic images of the Depression, photographed migrant farm laborers in Washington’s Yakima Valley in 1939—as well as the later Japanese American internment camps—for the Farm Securities Administration. Folksinger Woody Guthrie was commissioned to write songs promoting public utilities and work relief-built dams on the Columbia River, producing 1941’s “Roll on, Columbia,” the current state song.

The Depression years also saw Washington's emergence in national films, as the major Hollywood studios set and filmed many major 1930s films in the State's mountains and waterfronts. Washington's mountains served as cheaper stand-ins for the Alaskan Yukon, while scenes of Seattle's waterfront provided authenticity and novelty to Hollywood's films. State boosters used the films as ways to bring tourism to the State, while Hollywood sometimes employed Washington's unemployed as temporary film crews.

Symphonic music suffered during the Great Depression. Seattle had an undistinguished, mostly volunteer symphony at the start of the decade and despite support from the Federal Music Project, that institution and other local symphonies would struggle for audiences throughout the decade. Radio was part of the problem for the symphony, but part of the popularization of art in the era: radio networks now delivered music of many kinds straight into the family living room at no cost.

Greek clarinetist Nicholas Oeconamacos, who had performed under John Philip Sousa and the Seattle Symphony conductor Homer Hadley, returned to Seattle during the Great Depression to play for change on the street. Federal and regional funding also provided assistance for unemployed musicians, and the City Council sponsored outdoor concert series in the parks as one way to employ musicians. (Seattle PI photograph, 1931, courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)
Bands playing popular music in clubs and dancehalls also struggled in the early 1930s, but with the end of prohibition in 1933, going to clubs became very popular for those who could afford it. As Jazz evolved into Swing Jazz, dancing became the rage. Jackson Street, the heart of Seattle’s black community, was also the heart of the region’s Jazz scene. Local bands played the Jackson Street clubs and attracted mixed black and white audiences, while touring big bands found larger venues downtown where only whites were allowed.

As it was in the rest of the country, the Depression-era arts in Washington State both chronicled people’s experiences and gave voice to a particular vision, born of economic crisis, of social change and renewal. The combination of federal arts funding through the New Deal and the stimulation of social movements for civil rights, industrial unionism, and social reform created a new cultural environment, new forms of art, changed understandings of community and individual social roles, and a collapse of distinctions between art, culture, and politics.

Copyright (c) 2009, Jessie Kindig

Next: Visual Arts in the Great Depression

Click on the links below to read illustrated research reports on culture and the arts during Washington's Depression.


Ronald Ginther Watercolors

Ginther produced more than 80 paintings. They are a unique resource, depicting the rough life of Hoovervilles and homeless men, of jails and soup kitchens, unemployed demonstrations and police attacks, strikes and radical protests.

The Power of Art and the Fear of Labor: Seattle's Production of Waiting for Lefty in 1936, by Selena Voelker

The Jameses founded the Seattle Repertory Playhouse and played a crucial role in the development of the Federal Theatre Project in the state, as well as reimagining the role of theatre in Washington.

Escape to the Movies: Seattle Cinema in the Great Depression, by Andrea Kaufman

Movie houses found a variety of ways to bring people to the cinema during the Depression, from special bargain nights and promotions to new escapistf film genres.

When Hollywood Went to Washington: Film's Golden Age in the Evergreen State by Zachary Keeler

Hollywood and Washington State formed a mutually beneficial relationship during the 1930s, as Hollywood films brought tourism and job opportunities to Washington and used its settings to portray the Alaskan Yukon or to stand in for the rural West.

Jazz on Jackson Street: The Birth of a Multiracial Musical Community in Seattle, by Kaegan Faltys-Burr

Seattle's jazz scene flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the multiracial neighborhood culture of the Central District and Jackson St.

Dorothea Lange essay series:

Social Documentary photography Dorothea Lange visited Washington's Yakima Valley in 1939 to chronicle rural farm life and migrant families during the Depression.

• Part 1: Dorothea Lange's Social Vision: Photography and the Great Depression, by Emily Yoshiwara
• Part 2: Dorothea Lange in the Yakima Valley: Rural Poverty and Photography, by Stephanie Whitney

Dorothea Lange's Yakima Valley Photograph Gallery
Richard Correll and the Woodcut Graphics of the Voice of Action, by Brian Grijalva

Seattle's Communist Party newspaper relied on woodcut artist Richard Correll for many of its illustrations. Correll art was stark and unforgettable. He could narrate a strike or detail a militant political position in a single 4 inch by 5 inch image.

The 1932 Seattle Sports Scene: Helping the Emerald City through Hard Times, by Brian Harris

Seattle rallied around its sports teams and prospective Olympic athletes as a symbol of community life and leisure during the Depression, despite loss of funds for many sports programs.

The Rainy City on the “Wet Coast”: The Failure of Prohibition in Seattle, by Kayta Katherine Samuels

Prohibition failed to control the production, consumption, and enjoyment of alcohol in Seattle and the entire “wet coast.”

Visual Arts

Federal Art Project in Washington State

The most ambitious of the New Deal visual arts programs, the Federal Art Project emphasized work relief for artists as well as public education and documentation of folk traditions. In Washington State, it employed dozens of men and women in diverse pursuits such as easel painting, mural painting, sculpture, teaching, model making and more.

Public Works of Art Project in Washington State

The first visual arts program launched during the Great Depression, the Public Works of Art Project employed more than 3,000 artists nationwide including 50 in Washington State. It established an important precedent regarding federal government support for the arts and served as a model for later initiatives.

Post Office Murals and Art for Federal Buildings: The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture in Washington State

Centrally managed by the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. the Section commissioned thousands of murals, wood carvings and sculptures for public buildings, including post offices, court houses and federal agency headquarters in the capital. As a result of its presence in small and large communities, this program's work is perhaps the best known of any New Deal visual arts initiative.

New Deal Post Office Murals in Washington State

This google interactive map marks the location of the 18 Washington State post offices that housed art commissioned by the Section. Common motifs include agriculture, logging and western history, featuring images of both Euro-American settlers and Native peoples. For more information on the Treasury program, please see the research report "The Section of Painting and Sculpture in Washington State,"

The Spokane Art Center: Bringing Art to the People

In addition to providing gainful employment to thousands of unemployed artists, the Federal Art Project (FAP) also stressed art education through community art centers as one of its primary objectives. One of the most successful sites, hosting lthousands of visitors and hundreds of classes, was located in Spokane, Washington.

Theatre Arts

Federal Theatre Project in Washington State, by Sarah Guthu

The FTP in Washington was one of the most vibrant in the country, including the Negro Repertory Unit, Living Newspaper theatre journalism, a Children's Unit, and hosted traveling productions to New Deal public works programs around the state.

Seattle's Negro Repertory Company:

Outside of New York City, Washington's FTP hosted the only all-African American company in the nation, who produced three plays: Stevedore, about a longshore strike; an all-black production of Lysistrata, which was closed down for its "scandalous" scenes; and a production written by the Negro Unit based on the life of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Stevedore, by Sarah Guthu
Lysistrata, by Sarah Guthu
An Evening with Dunbar, by Sarah Guthu

The Jameses and the Playhouse, by Sarah Guthu

The Jameses founded the Seattle Repertory Playhouse and played a crucial role in the development of the Federal Theatre Project in the state, as well as reimagining the role of theatre in Washington.

Living Newspapers:

These productions combined theatre with journalism, and brought regional controversies to life, including battles over public and private power; the regulation of syphilis; and immigration.

Power, by Sarah Guthu
Spirochete, by Sarah Guthu
One Third of a Nation, by Sarah Guthu



[1] Richard C. Berner, Seattle, 1921–1940: From Boom to Bust (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 247–251; Cornish College of the Arts, “Making History,” <>.

[2] Callahan’s review quoted in Berner, Seattle, 1921–1940, 248.

[3] Matthew Kangas, William Cumming: The Image of Consequence (Seattle: Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum, 2005), p. 15.

[4] Brian Grijalva, “Richard Correll and the Woodcut Graphics of Voice of Action,” Communism in Washington State History and Memory Project, <>.