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Film shows how Great Depression put artists to work

February 15, 2015

Eighty years after the federal Works Progress Administration put unemployed artists to work creating sculptures and murals for post offices and courthouses during the Great Depression, film maker Michael Maglaras is issuing this reminder: Look around.

Much of the art still exists and has as much meaning now as it did then, says Maglaras, whose documentary “Enough to Live On: The Arts of the WPA” will be released May 15.

The 90-minute production revisits the inclusion of artists in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA program, better known for the bridges and buildings that it paid workers to build.

The arts piece offered creative types like Sinclair Lewis, Orson Welles and Jackson Pollock $42 a week.

“The goal was that you would walk into a public space — a post office, federal office building, courthouse — and you would be transacting your business, standing in line, passing through a hallway ... and look at what was on the wall,” Maglaras said, “and what was on there would spiritually enlighten you and lift you up and take you away from the terrible burdens that all Americans were suffering during the Depression, and give you confidence and hope for the future.”

Among 100 featured works is a 1936 Welles production of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” featuring an all-black cast and set in Haiti, instead of Scotland.

“This is a 21-year-old Orson Welles, and we have found archival footage that no one believed existed of rehearsals for this play,” Maglaras said.

Other works have been lost or scattered through the years. The U.S. General Services Administration is in the process of tracking down the tens of thousands of pieces created through 1943. At last count, more than 20,000 works had been inventoried.

The agency said the artwork is most commonly found when it’s offered for sale.

Maglaras said enough still exists in their original locations to make a state-by-state tour.

The documentary will premiere at the New Britain, Connecticut, Museum of Art and then tour the country through December.

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