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Brother, Can You Spare A Dime: Jewish Artists of the WPA

June 17 – September 5, 2021

The everyday worker, like the artist, is critical to national infrastructure. This comparison and connection is visually evident in one of the most devastating periods of US history – the Great Depression. The convergence of these notions and the artwork it generated by artists of diverse backgrounds, many of them Jewish, were part of the foundation for the establishment of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) visual arts arm, the Federal Art Project from 1935-1943. 

The program employed 10,000 artists to create murals, paintings, sculpture, photography, graphic art, theater sets and posters. These artists created a vast body of public art to adorn civic and community spaces. While one of the project’s goals was to lift communal spirits, the somber mood of the country and the grit necessary to navigate the arduous conditions became innately depicted topics. 

The struggles and hopes are familiar as the parallels to contemporary events and circumstances are all too apparent. Issues of socioeconomic inequity, cultural and racial divides and anti-immigration sentiments have amplified with unemployment rates during the pandemic matching Depression-era levels. Providing dialogue during unprecedented times, documenting everyday plights, and giving voice to the marginalized are at the heart of art’s purpose and what it means to be human. 

Artists of disparate beliefs and upbringings participated in and were impacted by the WPA. Regionalism assisted in identifying an artist’s provenance – whether an urban backdrop depicting a neglected New York tenement, rustic midwestern farms, boats docked at coastal ports, or laborers hard at work in sundry settings. Featuring work by Jewish artists in local and regional collections, this exhibit will explore individual and collective contributions and their WPA-Federal Art Project legacies. 

An originally curated Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit. From local and regional private and personal collections.

Click here to plan your visit to see Brother, Can You Spare A Dime: Jewish Artists of the WPA. Comprehensive virtual tours and creative workshops are available to support this exhibit. Contact Ellie Gettinger for more information. 

Thank you to our generous exhibit sponsors: The Mary L. Nohl Fund and The Robert and Dolores Schlossmann Family Fund of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Isabel Bader, Anonymous Foundation*, Suzy B. Ettinger*, Linda and Eli Frank, In Memory of Dr. Herbert and Ruth Giller, Marjorie and Jonathan Margolies, Milwaukee Arts Board, Gerald and Louise Stein Family*, Harriet & Jerry Dorf*, Herbert Zien & Elizabeth Levins, Marquette University Department of History, Coalition for Jewish Learning, Jewish Community Relations Council, Tikkun  Ha-Ir
*Donor Advised Fund of the Milwaukee Jewish Community Foundation

Media Sponsor: Wisconsin Public Radio

Images left to right: 1. A Nickel a Shine by Isaac Soyer. Lithograph, 1937. Illinois Legacy Collection, Illinois State Museum. Photo credit: Illinois State Museum. 2. Workers by Alfred Sessler. Lithograph, 1938. Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. Photo credit: UWM Special Collections. 3. Hooverville Depression Scene by Max Arthur Cohn. Oil painting, 1938. UWM Art Collection and Mathis Art Gallery. Gift of Jane Cohn Waldbaum and Steven L. Morse. Photo credit: UWM Art Collection.

Programs

Virtual Opening Preview of Brother, Can You Spare A Dime: Jewish Artists of the WPA
Wednesday, June 16, 7:00 PM  
Join JMM for an evening of music and art that was funded through the Works Project Administration (WPA). Learn about the ethnomusicologists who captured distinctly American Music for posterity including legendary blues/folk musician Lead Belly and explore Library of Congress holdings with Dr. Todd Harvey, Curator of the Alan Lomax Collection at LOC’s American Folklife Center. Groove to Lead Belly’s blues music performed by Fruteland Jackson including ‘Goodnight Irene’ and tour the exhibit that explores the working men and women and their environments as they navigated the Great Depression. 

Virtual Book Talk – Before the Invention of Smiling with David Zucker 
Thursday, June 24, 12:00 PM 
Join David Zucker, director of such classic off-the-wall comedies like Airplane!, The Naked Guns, and Scary Movies, as he discusses his recently published book, Before the Invention of Smiling, described as part family history, part scrapbook, part autobiography and part Zucker’s “rantings.”  

We Are America:  The Cultural Programs of the Great Depression 
Thursday, July 15, 7:00 PM  
Join Betsy Pease, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Concordia University, to learn about the broader context of the New Deal and Depression-era culture in which artwork of the Works Progress Administration were produced, an era that saw a diverse cross-section of Americans use opportunity to redefine their nation and make claims to a rightful place in it.    

Virtual Book Talk – How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America 
Tuesday, July 27, 7:00 PM
In the breadth of work created during the Great Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project  interviewed formerly enslaved people, marking the first major collection of oral histories about slavery in America. Explore this intriguing collection and more, with author Clint Smith,  as he discusses his debut work of nonfiction How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, a revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave owning nation. Smith will be in conversation with Reggie Jackson of Nurturing Diversity Partners, a Milwaukee-based organization that provides education, training, and consulting services to foster diversity, inclusion, and equity within institutions and communities. Sponsored by the Coalition for Jewish Learning, Jewish Community Relations Council, Marquette University Department of History and Tikkun Ha-Ir. In Partnership with Nurturing Diversity Partners. 

Book Talk – At the End of the World, Turn Left 
Thursday, August 5, 5:30 PM
Gordon Park Pavilion
Join Zhanna Slor, author of At the End of the World, Turn Left, as she discusses her debut novel, a compelling story about identity and how you define “home” set in Milwaukee’s eclectic Riverwest neighborhood. In partnership with Coalition for Jewish Learning and NextGen MKE of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. 

At the Service of the People: Mural Art, Politics, and the New Deal 
Thursday, August 19, 7:00 PM  
Join Raoul Deal, Senior Lecturer at the Peck School of the Arts and artist in his own right, for a presentation about the work and lives of some of the artists who participated in the Public Works of Art Program  and the Federal Arts Project, and embraced the power of art to shape the way we see the world.   

Wall to Wall: How Mural Art is Changing MKE’s Cityscape 
Tuesday, August 24, 7:00 PM  
Join Stacey Williams-Ng, founder of Black Cat Alley, for a moderated panel discussion featuring three prominent local mural artists who are on the front lines telling the story of our city. Panelists include: Daisy Gertel, Reynaldo Hernandez, and Tia Richardson.  

Greendale: A New Deal Greenbelt Town
Sunday, September 5, 1:00 PM 
In one of the more obscure New Deal programs of the Great Depression, three “Greenbelt Towns” were designed by the US government. Greendale, Wisconsin, is one of those towns. Join the Greendale Historical Society to examine Greendale as an outgrowth of public policy and an organic community that eventually evolved to embrace a shopping mall, condominiums, and expensive homes while still preserving much of the architecture and ambiance of the original village. The story is told by Greendale’s first residents in their own words.  

Click here for a full list of programs at Jewish Museum Milwaukee.