Between 1930 and 1970, the composition of America’s urban population changed greatly, leading to the culturally, economically, and racially diverse cities that we know today. The prints, drawings, and photographs on view present responses by many artists to the dynamic climate of the urban centers within which they lived and worked.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought soaring unemployment to America’s cities. Paradoxically, far from being a sterile period for art, Depression-era artists — bolstered by government programs such as the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) — took responsibility for addressing the issues in a range of representational styles that were accessible to a broad public. This Social Realist movement would influence a variety of artistic approaches over the next 30 years. In the 1940s, new job opportunities arose because of the war effort. Women entered the workforce in greater numbers than ever before, and the racial makeup of cities changed as scores of African Americans migrated northward from the Deep South. These factors and the influx of Europeans fleeing World War II infused the urban scene with a burgeoning population, multicultural vitality, and a fertile ground for the creation of music and visual arts. In the 1950s, however, anxieties over the Cold War left many Americans with a sense of unease, even with the economic prosperity that was felt in several sectors of society. Some artists became more introspective, while others focused on the alienation of life in the city. For artists in the 1960s who dealt with subjects such as Civil Rights or Women’s Liberation, the approach became more confrontational.
Throughout the 40 years represented here, public spaces such as streets, entertainment venues, bars, and subways provided abundant material for artists as documentarians, as participants, and as voyeurs. There they recorded the mix of cultures, examined the notion of community, and confronted the social problems inherent in immense sociological change.