National Park Posters Remind Us Why Government Funding Is Beautiful
Interior Department print by J. Hirt for the Work Projects Administration Federal Art Project

National Park Posters Remind Us Why Government Funding Is Beautiful

Let's go back to a time when the government loved arts and the environment.
March 17, 2017, 7:19pm

Believe it or not, there was a time when both art and the environment were chock full of government money. And because of this, America was endowed with its iconic national park prints. You've probably seen them before—crisp and figurative, while capturing the most provocative elements of our nation's famed landmarks.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a New Deal federal program in the 1930s and 1940s that put millions of people back to work during the Great Depression. Under President Roosevelt, it bore the Federal Art Project, which commissioned thousands of posters celebrating nature, science, and exploration. Today, as we struggle to keep public arts programs alive, our country is still covered in WPA works that remind us of their potential for economic and cultural profit.

Meanwhile, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), also a work relief effort, galvanized able bodies to restore our national parks and forests. It employed up to 3 million men, including 15,000 Native Americans, to the tune of $30 per person each month. Over nearly a decade, CCC members planted three billion trees; constructed scenic roadways and outdoor recreation structures still in use; built fish hatcheries and reintroduced wildlife to native ecosystems; developed new conservation methods; and controlled wildfires.

The WPA era not only catalyzed an artistic renaissance in America—giving visual artists like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock some of their first commissions—it also breathed new life into environmental conservation. The natural wonders immortalized in print might not look as magnificent today were it not for these programs.

It's a different time now. President Trump's 2018 budget delivered fatal cuts to the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency, while completely eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Congress can change the discretionary spending part of the budget, however. Issues such as public lands generally see bipartisan support, but the fate of public arts is uncertain.

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With that in mind, it's always nice to look back and feel good about the things we've accomplished. Plus, looking at pretty pictures never made anyone depressed.

Approximately 2,000 WPA prints are believed to exist, according to the Library of Congress, where many of the originals are archived.