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February 27, 2024

The Business of Art

The Business of Art

Art, Federal Funding, and Modern Philanthropy, 1920s/1930s

Note: This task sheet has TWO PARTS. You must complete BOTH PARTS [see below].

ONLY submit Task Sheets that are complete and based on the assigned readings and videos!


-Alissa Wilkinson: “Artists helped lift America out of the Great Depression. Could that happen again?” (2020): https://www.vox.com/culture/21294431/new-deal-wpa-federal-art-project-coronavirus

-The Ford: “Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo:” https://artsandculture.google.com/story/edsel- ford-diego-rivera-and-frida-kahlo-the-henry-ford/sQURCoE7OVhzIg?hl=en

-Diego Rivera: “Destruction in Rockefeller Center:” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/rockefellers-destruction/

-Video: The Frescoes of Diego Rivera, 1986

The Business of Art

The Business of Art


The recent recession and an economic downturn due to the pandemic have prompted employees of various professions, including the arts, to take to the streets. Thus studying support for the arts in the Great Depression era is especially interesting, as both governmental and private sponsorship was crucial at a time of hardship. However, both, government agencies and wealthy philanthropists had their own agendas and put their “ideological stamp” on artworks produced, or even censored them.


Federal Funding: Federal funds are all monies received directly from the federal government, the expenditure of which is administered through or under the direction of any agency/department.

Philanthropy: generally refers to the goodwill to one’s fellow people, as well as to the active effort to promote the welfare of people. In modern use it refers specifically to the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for others. A person who practices philanthropy is called a philanthropist.

The Business of Art


The Works Progress Administration (WPA), renamed Work Projects Administration in 1939, was an American New Deal agency that employed millions of people – men, women, and youth – to carry out public works projects. It was set up by presidential order in 1935, as a key part of the second stage of the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The WPA became the most famous, because it affected so many people’s lives. At its peak, it supplied paid jobs for 3 million unemployed men, women, and youth. Sub-projects were the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Music Project and the Federal Art Project (FAP). [See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_New_Deal]


Read: -Alissa Wilkinson: “Artists helped lift America out of the Great Depression. Could that happen again?”(2020): https://www.vox.com/culture/21294431/new-deal-wpa-federal-art-project-coronavirus

Please answer the following questions in about 4-6 sentences each:

The Business of Art

Summarize the main points of Wilkinson’s text.

Explain the role the Federal Art Project, part of the WPA, played for visual artists during the Great Depression and beyond, according to Wilkinson’s text.

After reading Wilkinson’s text, what is your opinion: Should visual artists be supported by the government and can artists help lift up society in times of economic crisis? Explain your opinion.


Diego Rivera (1886-1957) was a famous Mexican Muralist, one of the Los Tres Grandes with David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. Rivera was a member of the Mexican communist party and married the much younger painter, Frida Kahlo, as his third wife, who came to international fame in her own right posthumously. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), Rivera was commissioned by the Mexican government to paint murals on several public buildings such as the Ministry of Education and the National Palace in the center of Mexico City. After being expelled from the communist party for working for the Mexican government, Rivera took on public and private commissions in various US cities, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York City.

The Business of Art

During his time in the US, accompanied by Kahlo, Rivera found himself again in the crossfire of politics and opposing world views, at odds with both, his left-wing peers and his wealthy patrons.

Edsel Ford (1893-1943) was an American business executive and philanthropist who was the only child of industrialist Henry Ford and Clara Jane Bryant Ford. He was the president of the Ford Motor Company from 1919 until his death in 1943. Ford was one of the most significant art benefactors in Detroit history. As President of the Detroit Arts Commission, he commissioned Diego Rivera to paint the Detroit Industry Murals in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) in 1932.

Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) was an American businessman, philanthropist, and politician who served as the 41st vice president (1974-1977 and 49th governor of New York (1959-1973). He was a grandson of Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller and a noted art collector, who was crucial in the planning of the new Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, New York City, in the early 1930s.

The Business of Art

A controversy was caused when Rockefeller commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a large-scale mural for the lobby of the new Rockefeller Center center with the title, Man at the Crossroads in 1933.


-Video: The Frescoes of Diego Rivera, 1986 [see Moule: Week 6]

-The Ford: “Edsel Ford, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo:” https://artsandculture.google.com/story/edsel-ford-diego-rivera-and-frida-kahlo-the-henry-ford/ sQURCoE7OVhzIg?hl=en

-Diego Rivera: “Destruction in Rockefeller Center:”


-For info on Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_at_the_Crossroads

All MUST answer 1):

The Business of Art

In a paragraph, please summarize the video, The Frescoes of Diego Rivera, focusing on Rivera’s relationship to his public (Mexican and US government) and private (Ford and Rockefeller) patrons.

Select and answer only EITHER 2) OR 3):

What interest prompted Rivera to accept Edsel Ford’s commission to paint a cycle of 27 panels, Detroit Industries, at the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932/33), depicting the Ford Motor Company? How did Ford’s company directly influence Rivera’s mural designs? Please explain with an example. How was celebrating the auto industry during the Great Depression at odds with his communist ideals?

Briefly explain the controversy that ensued when Rivera painted his mural, Man at the Crossroads, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for the lobby of the new Rockefeller Center in New York City. What provoked Rockefeller to dismiss Rivera before the mural was finished and have it destroyed? Why did Rivera defend his original design rather than change it and bow to his patron’s wish?

Where did Rivera eventually repaint the mural under the new title, Man, Controller of the Universe?