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Artists at work in the National Archives

A display of handmade gifts at the American Artisans Fair at the National Archives in Washington, DC, on December 2 to 6.

We’ve got lots of artists in the building today. If you visit the National Archives Building from December 2 to 6, you can partake of history and do your Christmas shopping and support local artists and support the programs of the National Archives!

The holiday fair is officially titled “The Way We Worked” American Artisans Fair. Local area artists were invited to participate. Chris DerDerian, the manager of the National Archives Shop, was inspired by the New Deal programs that put artists to work during the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1943, citizens held 8 million jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). While the WPA administered large projects like the creation of roads, it also administered projects in the arts.

“This first annual fair is to encourage visitors to the National Archives to support the work of today’s American artisans as they shop for meaningful contemporary gifts celebrating American history this holiday season,” DerDerian said.

I was curious about what exactly artists were hired to do during the 1930s, so I did a quick search in our Online Public Access database and discovered this delightful piece of administrative reporting from 1940: Report of WPA Activities of the Golden Gate International Exposition.

If you think a report cannot be delightful, you are wrong. This report is made up of fascinating pictures and charming captions (at one point a child is being fed in the childcare center, and the caption declares that even cod liver oil can be fun!). But I was interested by the various artists and how their work was presented as something that benefited both the artists and the public.

The fair was held in San Franciso to celebrate the recent completion of three bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge. The WPA was one of many exhibitors.

At one booth, a demonstrator shows how scraps can be recycled into useful objects (this is now called “up-cycling” by sites like Etsy). Another photograph shows an artist painting while a crowd watches him behind a fence. And the well-known artist Diego Rivera is casually tossed into the report—there’s a photograph of him working on a mural. A giant head of Leonardo da Vinci is being sculpted for the San Franciso Junior College. It’s interesting to see how the art being made is for the public, both as part of the exhibit and as projects for later display somewhere out in public. This isn’t art for museums or private collections, but art for everyone.

Between May 25 and September 1940, over 9 million visitors passed through the exposition and saw the work of these artists and artisans. You can see the full report, or check out some of the highlights below!

Report of WPA Activities of the Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940. ARC 296088

Sculpture demonstration, Report of WPA Activities of the Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940. ARC 296088

Diego Rivera at work, Report of WPA Activities of the Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940. ARC 296088

Report of WPA Activities of the Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940. ARC 296088

Upcycling in 1940! Report of WPA Activities of the Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940. ARC 296088

Yum! Cod liver oil! Report of WPA Activities of the Golden Gate International Exposition, 1940. ARC 296088

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