Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 4, 2023
Mary Ann Calo African American Artists and the New Deal Art Programs University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2023. 216 pp.; 15 b/w ills. $74.95 (9780271094939)

As the first dedicated monograph to Black artists’ involvement in the federal projects of the 1930s and 1940s, Mary Ann Calo’s African American Artists and the New Deal Art Programs: Opportunity, Access, and Community constitutes a major intervention. Existing scholarship on Black artists in the New Deal is few and far between; outside of exhibitions with small catalogs, like Lehman College Art Gallery’s 1989 Black Printmakers and the W.P.A., material is mainly dispersed across survey texts on the federal projects or on twentieth-century African American artmaking. These publications have sought mainly to interrogate the extent to which federal employment enhanced individual artists’ careers, and to chronicle the challenges posed by government oversight—such as in the case of Aaron Douglas’s strained relationship with Public Works of Art Project administrators, who ultimately terminated his employment in response to perceived leftist sentiments in his work. Calo attends, instead, to structural questions about how Black artists navigated the unsettled institutional, economic, and social landscapes of Depression-era art worlds, in which government agencies superficially invested in inclusion promised to integrate Black artists into mainstream narratives of American art like never before—a promise that, Calo reveals, was broken more often than not. 

Replete with granular historical detail gleaned from an impressive array of archival sources, Calo’s book is inquisitive and ambitious in its excavation of Black artists’ New Deal-era histories. Severely underrepresented in art historical studies of the federal projects to date, Black artists were similarly marginalized within the projects themselves. They were less likely to receive commissions, and severely underrepresented in the programs’ more senior roles—circumstances which advocacy groups like the Harlem Artists’ Guild mobilized to challenge. Meanwhile, Federal Arts Project (FAP)-sponsored exhibitions of US-American art sought to uncover a national artistic character distinct from European models; here, too, Black artists were excluded and their works shown mostly in all-Black exhibitions, a format many participants critiqued. Against claims by other scholars that the New Deal was a particularly fecund moment in the history of African American artistic professionalization, Calo paints a picture of temporarily and conditionally increased opportunities, and a discursive landscape that shifted only so far as a still-segregated nation could permit.

Calo’s five chapters are structured around a series of illustrative case studies. The first chapter, “Historiography,” introduces the research conducted to date on the New Deal art programs, charting how publications from the last five decades in the fields of New Deal studies, American history, and African American art history have expanded our knowledge of African American artists’ involvement in the projects. Calo’s valuable primer also identifies blind spots: ongoing concern with individual artists, for example, threatens to obscure the institutional and social structures that disadvantaged Black project participants. Calo remains attentive to these structures throughout.

“Participation,” Calo’s second chapter, is a data-rich examination of how, and how far, Black artists were able to participate in the federal projects. Calo’s main focus here is on federally funded “Community Art Centers” (CAC)—regional organizations dedicated to offering arts education and exhibition spaces for underserved communities (5). Calo is especially attentive to the particularities of the Southern CACs, which were often subject to hostility from nearby white communities, and whose remoteness from existing art world infrastructures limited their ability to offer Black artists meaningful career advancement. This chapter’s focus on the South is particularly appreciated considering African American art history’s tendency to focus on metropolitan Northern centers.

The third chapter, “Advocacy,” explores how unions and activist groups advocated to improve Black artists’ experiences of federal employment. Scholarship on this topic has primarily examined white-led groups like the Artists’ Union, but Calo proves the extent to which, Black-led organizations like the Harlem Artists’ Guild (HAG) guided the direction of leftist cultural activism during the Depression. Ultimately, Calo argues, HAG operated within a cultural landscape that it was powerless to change: Black artists continued to struggle for economic security and art world access in the 1940s, as they had in decades prior.

Chapter Four, “Visibility,” focuses on the period’s exhibitionary cultures, particularly the all-Black show. Calo charts the format’s interwar history from its origins in the 1920s and buttresses her analysis with case studies—the 1941 exhibition Creative Art of the American Negro, for example, which achieved mainstream attention through reviews in organs like the Washington Post, but whose press releases nonetheless perpetuated racist notions about Black artists’ essential creative freedom. This chapter adroitly elucidates the genealogies of exhibitionary cultures which taxonomize Black artists’ work as separate from normative white stylistic progression, but it would benefit from more deeply interrogating the notion of “visibility.” Calo does not address to whom these exhibitions rendered Black artists visible, and to what end, which risks overlooking the wealth of scholarship in Black studies and African American art history from the last twenty years theorizing the trappings of Black artists’ visibility. It also omits discussion of the role the Black press played in promoting and reviewing exhibitions, which would have added greater nuance and specificity to the book’s discussion of where, and how, Black artists were or were not visible.

Calo’s final chapter, “Aftermath,” turns to the post-FAP environment. After the decline of the federal arts projects, much of the arts landscape returned to the status quo. Calo’s main focus here is the People’s Art Center (PAC) of St. Louis, MO, one of the last Community Art Centers to open with FAP support. PAC’s turbulent lifespan is archetypal of what Calo presents as Black Americans’ experience of the federal arts projects: despite the benefit it brought to its community, the bitterness and tension generated by the nation’s changing racial landscape led to its closure in 1965. The federal projects, then, Calo concludes, failed to create lasting change for Black artists in the United States, despite their meaningful interventions in the 1930s.

With its richly detailed discussions of Black artists’ experiences of exhibiting, promoting, and advocating for their work in the New Deal era, African American Artists is undoubtedly an essential contribution to many overlapping art historical fields. Calo’s attention remains fixed on practical realities like institutional access and career opportunities, a framework she inherits from critical early thinkers in the field like Alain Locke and James Porter. Calo says herself in her fifth chapter that Locke and Porter focused on “institutions, opportunities, and audiences,” where other prominent art theorists of the moment attended only to questions of style and taste (115). Her method, then, is reminiscent of the one pioneered in the interwar moment she outlines—a fact which only serves to shore up this book’s importance at a time when we are increasingly reminded of the unresolved and urgent asymmetries in Black and white artists’ experiences in the art world, and in histories thereof.

In many ways, though, African American Artists speaks more to the interdisciplinary field of New Deal studies than it does to art history. Calo’s concern is with reconstructing a social history, and not with charting the stylistic, formal, or technical innovations it produced. As Calo herself writes in her preface, New Deal studies has suffered in recent years from stagnation in archival research, resulting in the repeated recirculation of “a handful of sources with varying degrees of reliability” (xi). African American Artists stands to substantially reinvigorate this area through its careful recovery of a wealth of new archival detail.

The book’s only sustained passages of visual analysis are found in Jacqueline Francis’s epilogue. Francis’s valuable discussion of Carl Van Vechten’s staged photographs of volunteers at New York’s Stage Door Canteen—an entertainment venue and canteen catering to servicemen—casts Van Vechten’s work as envisioning interracial, international, and queer communities facilitated by the peculiar characteristics of wartime society. Her affective discussion of the stakes of such envisioning draws us into the fraught tenderness of mid-century homosocial and homosexual encounters. These images’ pertinence to the book’s overall questions about the FAP, though, is not immediately clear. It does not appear, and Francis does not claim, that the FAP precipitated the conditions required for Stage Door’s social scene to thrive. This analysis’s stakes are, then, somewhat obscured, despite its evident importance in art histories of the period. Its rootlessness is perhaps a consequence of the book’s position between multiple fields and disciplines. 

African American Artists makes leaps towards filling multiple existing lacunae. The continuity it identifies between the prewar, interwar, and postwar periods is particularly valuable for scholars of the Harlem Renaissance, for whom periodization remains unresolved. The book includes, additionally, the names of dozens of Black artists who have been entirely absent from scholarship heretofore, and whose oeuvres are ripe for analysis. However, its language occasionally jars. The word “Negro” appears regularly throughout the text, including outside of fully contextualized period settings such as quotations or titles. This word is abundant in the archives and primary sources in which the book’s research is embedded. Nonetheless, its usage often feels unnecessary. The resulting repetition of obsolete language stands in contrast to the book’s overall politics, which are commensurate with contemporary demands for specificity and accuracy in narrating neglected histories of marginalized subjects. This linguistic distraction pulls focus in chapters that are otherwise historically grounded, granularly detailed, and replete with case studies that serve to brilliantly illuminate social and cultural histories too long obscured. African American Artists’ remarkable depth of research will, nonetheless, make it a vital resource for scholars in a variety of intersecting fields concerned with American cultural and social history.

Madeleine Harrison
Terra Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian American Art Museum