Artists as activist


During the Great Depression many artists, employed by the Federal Government's Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs, gained a new awareness of social responsibility. In this tour students will explore paintings and prints from ISU's WPA collection that depict the social and political issues of that time period (1934-1943). Images of the homeless, unemployed and hungry address the economics situation, while others represent the worth and contribution of individual laborers. With paintings and prints of skyscrapers, factories, and bridges artists remind viewers of America's power. Social Surrealists warn against the rise of Fascism. Under the WPA program African American printmakers were free to counter negative stereotypes with positive genre scenes and dignified portraits of African Americans. Students will identify connections between pre-WWII events, societal issues, and artists' responses. Through a variety of images they will better understand those events.

Students will create a linoleum cut after viewing several in the collection. This tour is recommended for high school students. 

Academic Standards:


  • Examine the political, economic, social and cultural development of the United States during the period from 1920 to 1939.
  • Describe the causes and effects of the Great Depression and give examples of the government's response to conditions and events.
  • Analyze the impact of the New Deal programs and explain how the role of government changed during the 1930s.
  • Explain how America reacted to a changing society by examining issues associated with the "Red Scare," and the changing role of women and African Americans.
  • Identify and describe the contributions of political and social reformers during the Great Depression.
  • Responding to Art
  • Identify connections between major world events and societal issues and the ways artists have responded to these through their work.
  • Understand art in relation to history and past and contemporary culture.

Visual Literacy

  • Students identify instrumentalism in artwork. They apply criteria of others as well as their own in determining excellence in works. They consider historical context when making informed judgments.

Creating Art

  • Apply elements and principles of design
  • Utilize skills of critique.

Curriculum Integration

The UAG’s collection of approximately 3,600 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, drawings, prints, and photographs offers unique opportunities for University faculty of all disciplines to engage students in relevant discussions about original works of art. Visits to the Gallery or class discussions with the Curator or visiting scholars can better engage visual learners and get students to think about any topic from a different perspective.

To request a presentation on or off campus about an object(s) in the collection, a lecture about the WPA collection, or an overview of the collection, contact Grace Pringle at (812) 237-3720.

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