Depression, 20th Anniversary, exhibition, Cleveland, art museum, Public Works of Art, Steven Rebeck, Works Progress Administration, William Milliken, stock market crash, 1929, Great Lakes Exposition, museum members

American Archives Month 2014: The Cleveland Museum of Art During the Great Depression

Submitted by Leslie Cade on

On October 29, 1929 the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.  Cleveland’s spiraling prosperity of the early twentieth century abruptly ended and the Cleveland Museum of Art felt the impact. Operating expenses were cut dramatically and budgets were planned literally to the penny. One consequence of the Depression was increased demand on museum services. In his annual message to members, published in the Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art in January 1932, Director William Milliken acknowledged their role in making it possible for the museum to provide the programs so desperately needed by the community: “…Attendance has been greater than in any of the corresponding months of previous years in the museum’s existence…This increase in visitors brought with it new responsibilities and new burdens. Never before has the Educational Department had so many requests for service. The museum has been ready to meet these increased demands but they have far surpassed what was anticipated…The members of the museum perhaps do not realize what an invaluable part they are playing in solving this great social problem [of increased leisure due to lack of employment]. They are making it possible [through membership dues] to give the increased service demanded."

Although the museum scaled back exhibitions during this period, the twentieth anniversary of the museum’s founding was celebrated in conjunction with the Great Lakes Exposition with a blockbuster exhibition of world renowned works of art lent by leading museums and collectors throughout the world. To counter accusations that the art was too highbrow for the average person, the museum conducted a “famous painting popularity poll” to attract and engage visitors. Local newspapers also conducted popularity polls for children with prizes for the best essays.  Whistler’s White Girl, now in the National Gallery of Art won the contest.

In addition to providing the increased services needed by the local community Director Milliken was instrumental in providing employment for local and regional artists. In recognition of his knowledge of the local arts community, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Milliken regional director of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), one of numerous programs established under the New Deal to provide work for destitute artists.  Through this program local artists were employed creating works for public buildings based on the theme of the American scene. Sculptor Steven Rebeck (1891-1975), the first sculpture graduate of the Cleveland School of Art and award winning May Show artist, wrote to Milliken in 1933 requesting work through the PWAP. Milliken also served as an advisor to the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), as Ohio chief for national WPA-sponsored Art Weeks, as commissioning agent and local representative for the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and as chairman of many regional juries supervising competitions for post office murals across Ohio under the aegis of the Section of Painting and Sculpture.  Records of Milliken’s participation in these programs can be found in the museum archives.