The Gallery on Greene is presenting an exhibition of historic works with a celebration of shared heritage and historic connections by the 14 Key West WPA artists marking the 84th anniversary of Key West transformation to an artist’s paradise and cultural tourism instituted by economic experts from FDR's New Deal.
Key West was the wealthiest city per capita in 1900 and the first to go bankrupt in 1930 with 85% unemployment compared to 25% nationwide.
84 years after Roosevelt launched the New Deal, the WPA artworks offer a fascinating look at life in The Florida Keys during the 1930s. It is all work that is an important record of our indigenous locale in our nation’s history.
“The 1930s was a heady time for artists in America. Through President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the federal government paid them to paint and sculpt and urged them to look to the nation’s land and people for subjects. For the next decade—until World War II brought support to a halt—the country’s artists captured the beauty of the landscape, the industry of America’s working people, and a sense of community shared in towns large and small despite the Great Depression.” The Smithsonian.
William Hoffman recalled, “ The City of Key West was in a financial and spiritual eclipse. What had once been the wealthiest city per capita in the nation had declared bankruptcy and prevailed upon Washington for help. Single men often committed minor crimes so they would be put in jail and get free meals. The Federal Government visited the poverty-ridden island and observed the it would be the perfect place for an artists’ colony, a sort of Greenwich Village or Provincetown South.
Crimi related, “Many of the bars were bleak and uninviting, including Sloppy Joe’s with its warm beer and sloppy service.”
“The publicity Key West was receiving from all parts of the country attracted people from everywhere and many professions, such as artists, writers, actors, politicians and other prominent personalities. During the eight months of my stay in Key West, I met more people of renown than I ever had in my entire life; Elizabeth Bishop (Poet Laureate) Carlo Tresca (the anarchist), Jonathan Lattimer (Perry Mason) John Dos Pasos, & Ernest Hemingway.”
The artists on this project were assigned to do watercolors and to design posters and booklets which would be distributed to all parts of the country to attract tourists to Key West and develop it into an artists’ colony. We were given complete freedom with no ideological barriers imposed upon us.” Bill Hoffman The only guidance the government offered about subject matter was that the "American scene" would be a suitable topic. The Florida Keys artists embraced that idea, turning out seascapes and Key West cityscapes and maritime scenes by the yard: harbors and wharves.
These artist were later celebrated with exhibits at the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum, MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago and to be purchased by the Fords, Flaglers, Melons & Rockefellers. Sargent graced the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. Many became art celebrities, such as DeKoonig, Jackson Pollack, Georgia O’Keefe & Mark Rothko. This exhibit shines a spotlight on America's select artists who were sent to Key West: Franklin Townsend Morgan, Alfred D. Crimi, Key West Open Air Aquarium Frescos) William Hoffman(Key West City Hall Murals), Henry La Cagnina, Klir Beck, Walton Blodgett, Adrian Dornbush, Richard Jansen, Avery Johnson, Sidney Laufman, Peter Rotier, Richard Sargent, Erik Johan Smith, Stanley Wood influenced local artists; Mario Sanchez, Suzie DePoo, Papito Suarez, Martha Sauer, Jeanne Taylor and Joan Van Breeman.