Reflecting on Roosevelt’s New Deal

Posted March 7, 2008 at 3:57pm

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to the White House during a time that could be seen as having parallels to the present. The nation’s economy was failing under the incumbent president and the American people were craving a new leader.

To address the situation, Roosevelt created a series of social programs that came to be known collectively as the New Deal. The programs will be explored

this week at a symposium at the Library of Congress titled “Art, Culture, and Government: The New Deal at 75.”

“Roosevelt and his administration meant more than just a change in administration,” said Nancy Groce, program coordinator. “It was a hope for a new future.”

The conference, sponsored by the American Folklife Center, will mark the 75th anniversary of the New Deal.

The Works Progress Administration was the largest New Deal agency and employed millions of people. It is perhaps best known for overseeing the construction of highways, airports and public buildings throughout the country, but it also commissioned many arts projects.

“This symposium is sort of a way of bringing attention to that [art] material and the fact that scholars are still going back to that for new research,” Groce said, adding that these materials include narratives collected from former slaves who were still living at the time.

Speakers from all over the country will be on hand to discuss the New Deal programs. There will be presentations on how the programs affected different religions; other discussions will focus on the role that women played in the work force.

The symposium will begin on Thursday with a talk on preserving the legacy of the New Deal given by representatives of The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Christopher Breiseth, president and CEO of the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, will moderate the discussion. “Part of what I want to pick up on is just the richness and the variety of things that were done with government money,” he said. “I’m going to try to point out with some enthusiasm how we should be looking at this legacy. We’re in a climate right now where people are [saying] that we’ve not been talking about our infrastructure. Well, most of that was built [during FDR’s time].”

The New Deal began in 1933 and the WPA program started in April 1935, as a means of creating jobs. But it soon became much more.

“It really blossomed into programs that generated national treasures that we still use as touchstones for American culture” such as photos, recordings and the like, Groce said.

Many of these artifacts got scattered over time, though some are kept at the Library of Congress and others are housed at the National Archives. The symposium will take care to examine these artworks over the course of two days as a tribute to the program.

“The WPA programs were very innovative,” Groce says. “They weren’t all successful, but they really did spark a renewed sense of hope.”

“Art, Culture, and Government: The New Deal at 75,” begins at 1 p.m. on Thursday at the Library of Congress and will continue through Friday. For more information, call 202-707-1744.