From the Great Depression to the Great Lockdown, the economic parallels between the two cataclysmic events are undeniable. An exhibit that commemorates the Jewish artists of the Works Progress Adminstration, the most ambitious American New Deal agency, seems timely and relevant, said Molly Dubin, curator for the original installation at Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
The 1930s era-exhibit, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” runs June 17 to Sept. 5, 2021, and features 70 works by 45 Jewish artists, including at least three with ties to Wisconsin.
The title itself, the anthem of the Great Depression, has lyrics written by Yip Harburg, who was Jewish. “The title really encapsulates that time, and the artwork that was generated was incredibly large. The fact that it came about during such a time of incredible challenge and crisis is quite remarkable,” Dubin said.
During the Great Depression, the WPA Federal Arts Project commissioned a significant body of public art and sustained some 10,000 artists and craft workers.
The Federal Arts Project “was an unprecedented program or series of programs to subsidize the arts with the idea of not only putting artists back to work, but also bridging a gap between the public and the art to create this appreciation and unity in many instances,” Dubin said. The vast body of work “looked at the power of art and established a distinct American style that really reflects American heritage and values – strengths and labor and innovation and capitalism.” Dubin said.
Artists Aaron Bohrod, Aflred A. Sessler and Frank Utpatel are the three Wisconsin artists. Max Arthur Cohn, a pioneer in artistic screen printing, has a daughter who was a professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She donated a number of her father’s pieces to UWM’s art collection that are on loan to Jewish Museum Milwaukee.
The Jewish artists “are social realists who are into the politics and protests of the time,” Dubin said. “We’ve chosen to focus on the working man, the determination, but also the grit and difficulties. We are using this opportunity to reflect the challenges in society and the disparities in inequities that have parallels to today.”
Many of the Jewish artists were first-generation immigrants, who came to the U.S. to escape socio-economic difficulties and antisemitism. “They were pursuing the American dream and wound up in one of the darkest periods of history,” Dubin said. “It definitely impacted the type of work they were creating though there wasn’t any religious theme, not in the ones we have selected.”
“The depictions are very much about showing the spirit and looking to a better future and some a reflection of this incredibly dark, difficult time.”
There will be programs to go along with the exhibit, some virtual and others may be in person. Information on events and time-stamped tickets can be obtained online at JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org or call 414-390-5730.