In the mid-1930s, in an effort to provide economic relief to workers across the country, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration, creating jobs for those in need across the country. A few months later, the Federal Art Project was developed to provide jobs specifically for artists, resulting in the creation of thousands of posters and sculptures about social issues, American lifestyle, and New Deal initiatives.
Unfortunately, the federal government kept no record of these artworks, and while some landed in the Library of Congress, many remained uncatalogued, lost in the annals of American history.
Enter Social Impact Studios.
Under the direction of Founding Director Ennis Carter, Social Impact Studios (then called Design for Social Impact) created a comprehensive grassroots archive of these works. The archive remains the largest and most comprehensive source of WPA posters, numbering more than 1,800. Her book Posters for the People represents 500 of the era's greatest examples.
On Saturday, May 16, we are excited to host, in collaboration with Social Impact Studios, the Poster for the People Workshop & Talk at the Park, where participants can screen-print their own WPA-era poster, and join a discussion on the WPA and its legacy. (Register and learn all about it here.) In preparation for the event, we asked Ennis to answer a few questions about Social Impact Studios, Posters for the People, and the legacy of the WPA.
Q: Tell us about Social Impact Studios and how you came to create this organization.
Ennis: Social Impact Studios is a creative hub for promoting important social issues. We are based in Philadelphia and work with people all over the country. I created it in 1996 after working for 10 years as a community organizer with a focus on communications. I was inspired by the great work happening in the public interest sector and wanted to help make the stories of the movement the best that they could be. We believe good causes should get more attention than anything else. And we believe thoughtful, beautiful and meaningful communication is still the best way to engage and motivate people. At Social Impact Studios, creative activists collaborate, learn and do the work. From concept to creation, we design action plans, visuals, messages and moving grassroots experiences that make a social impact - together.
Q: What types of projects do you work on? Any examples you’d like to highlight?
Ennis: We work on a wide-range of projects that combine or feature elements of message, visual and experiential design, and the organizing it takes to get them out in the world. Having been around for nearly 20 years, we have done this work at wide ranges of a spectrum from the smaller details to large-scale projects. Here are some of our highlights:
- Buy Fresh Buy Local is a national initiative to call attention to local food and farmers markets. For this project our creative challenge was to develop a national “brand” for the local food movement. Our goal was the create something that the public at large could recognize and rely on, while honoring the uniqueness of the different places and food across the country.
- We were part of the original design team that created Meatless Monday. We do a lot of work in “movement building identity” - helping put together tangible message, visual and meaningful experience around often intangible ideas. This is one of those examples and it’s now a recognized health action around the globe.
- In 2011 we were commissioned to create a mural on the subject of “work” in Philadelphia by the Mural Arts Program. You can see this mural here, which heavily references the WPA through it’s social art style.
- Posters for the People is itself a highlight example of the type of work we do. This project started because we learned about the WPA poster project and realized that we were in a lineage of people who have promoted important social issues through message and visual design. We wanted to share the story of those who came before us in this line of work. But, when we discovered that there was no comprehensive record kept of this federal project and national treasure, we took our work in this area even farther by embarking on a project to create the only centralized record – and fill in the blanks by seeking out remaining posters in public and private collections around the country. PostersForThePeople.com is the ONLY comprehensive record, more than doubling what was officially catalogued by the federal government.
Q: WHERE DID YOU GATHER THE PHOTOS OF THE POSTERS for the archive?
Ennis: From historical records, there were an estimated 35,000 posters designed during the lifetime of the Poster Division of the Federal Art Project from 1936-1943. The Library of Congress had the biggest collection and record when we started at 900 pieces. Through our research at local public and private collections, we’ve more than doubled that number. The photos in the book represent what we consider the best 500 examples. Photos came from the repositories that house the posters themselves.
Q: Why did you decide to write Posters for the People?
Ennis: 2008 was the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s New Deal, so we planned a large-scale launch of the Posters for the People project in celebration of it. The idea for a book was not part of the original project because we didn’t have the resources or know-how to do that. We focused more on the actual comprehensive archive, which is the real goal of our work – to document every poster/design out there! We were fortunate to be offered the opportunity to do the book by our friends at QuirkBooks after they heard of our project.
Q: How long did this book take to put together?
Ennis: Thanks to the hard work from a team of people at Social Impact Studios (then called Design for Social Impact) and QuirkBooks, it took about 6 months to pull everything together.
Q: What is the significance of the title – Posters for the People?
Ennis: The Federal Art Project was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative – a tax-payer funded initiative to help get people of all backgrounds back to work during the Great Depression in the 1930s in the U.S. The New Deal programs ranged from infrastructure to health, education, housing and other social services to a vast arts program to provide cultural elements to the general public. The posters are the only public lens into the full world of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs. There was no television at the time, so public postings (posters) were a dominant way that people were made aware of what was happening in their neighborhoods and communities.
Q: Tell us what people can expect to learn when they read Posters for the People.
Ennis: People can expect first and foremost to be touched by the beauty of the visual designs and the strength of the powerful and simple messages. As an art form, the poster gets people to stop and pay attention. From there, a viewer makes their own interpretation of the information and takes away knowledge that hopefully encourages them to act in whatever way the poster is encouraging they do.
I hope that people will reflect on the role of artists in relation to promoting positive values for a society and specifically through this example what role government and the “public square” have in that effort.
I think people will also be struck by the fact that many of the issues portrayed in the posters from that era are still relevant today. They are evergreen challenges that we need to keep on the radar. Running a healthy democracy takes constant work and vigilance. The job of posters like these is to keep important concepts present in the public landscape and inspire people to keep working toward the tapestry of ideals that we’ve established as a democracy.
Q: Why are these posters important? What do they tell us about this era in history?
Ennis: I think I answered this for the most part in the last bit from the question before. But to add to that, I think that these posters as a collection tell us that there was a value put on art and ideas as a popular form of communication.
Q: Why is the WPA and FDR’s vision relevant/important today?
Ennis: I think that the Four Freedoms pretty much say it all. Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. We need to feel these freedoms more than ever, I think today. These are still core issues in our everyday lives and affect how healthy, happy and peaceful we are as a society. As technology and time moves at lightening speed, we still need to be reminded of the foundations of a good life and apply ourselves to achieving it. Focusing our efforts from a work-place perspective is a great way to do it. At work, you don’t have to be aligned in religion or lifestyle – you have to work together to get things done. We live in an intentionally secular society based on the ideas of personal freedom working together. The WPA and FDR’s vision are inspiring to help us continue to work toward that ideal. And the actual practical nature of a work program is a good model for tackling the challenge.
Q: Are there parallels between the work you’re doing with Social Impact Studios and the WPA?
Ennis: Absolutely! At the core, we believe that a healthy, happy and peaceful world is possible and worth creating together in a democracy. On an organizational level, we are a social enterprise, which is a work-model structure. We are not a non-profit. Instead, we do our work from an economic development perspective that is about shared-prosperity and economic exchange within community. On a practical level, we are a direct continuation of what the Poster Division was doing to apply creative and artistic visual and message storytelling to promoting important social issues in a way to encourages positive action.
Q: Do you have a favorite poster? Why?
Ennis: I try not to play favorites, but…I have a handful of posters that I do love a lot. My favorite is Robert Muchley’s “Work with Care.”
I love this poster for so many reasons:
- My own illustration style (see below) is like this and I never even know about these artists until much later in my career as an artist, so I am touched by the look of this piece because that’s how I choose to represent the world in my own art
- I love that this figure is putting their all into their work. The energy is so dynamic. This celebrates the beauty of work and a worker that is meaningful to me.
- Although this is most like a male figure, it is really a universal human more than anything. This person could be from any background or color of skin and I love that.
- And I love the message. This poster doesn’t say “Be Efficient” or “Be Productive” or “Cut Costs” - it says “Work with Care” that has so many meanings and benefits to both the worker, the industry and the outcome. It feels good and positive.