Art of the WPA

Nov 3, 2010

Kettering's permanent art collection provides an insightful look at WPA-created artwork, thanks in large part to early benefactors of the collection, Victor and Doris Zink.

It wasn’t quite “National Treasure” – but it was like finding hidden treasure when Mary Ellen Zang began to see an interesting pattern emerge while cataloging Kettering University’s permanent art collection in the Department of Liberal Studies. What she found was a set of artworks within the Kettering collection representing WPA-sponsored art.

Zang, has turned this “hidden treasure” into an exhibit she titled “WPA – Art of the Great Depression,” opened Nov. 12 in the Humanities Art Center on the fourth floor of the Academic Building at Kettering. As part of the opening, Dr. David W. Stowe will present "Bringing the New Deal Home: The Cultural Work of the WPA,” at 12:20 p.m. in the Art Center.

Stowe is Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures, Program in American Studies, Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University.

Zang, Art Center curator, was in the process of cataloging and preserving the collection of donated works, including two and three dimensional art, when she “started noticing a lot of art in the collection was sponsored by the WPA,” she said. “I knew something about the WPA because my great aunt had been an art teacher and had told me about the WPA-supported arts programs during the Depression. Also, my family had some artwork from the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, which was part of the WPA,” she added.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest New Deal agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It employed millions to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, and operated large arts, drama, media and literacy projects. [Reference: Economics History Association, Jim Couch, University of North Alabama]

Zang had been looking for a theme to showcase the Kettering collection. The WPA works came up as the largest ‘body’ of connected works with which to create an exhibit.

Kettering University’s art collection is due in part to donations by Victor and Doris Zink, who made the largest donation of artwork to the collection over a number of years. Zink went into art collecting and selling after he retired, according to Dr. Karen Wikinson, department chair for Liberal Studies at Kettering.

“I personally like the art,” said Zang, “the WPA was an enormous program with different sensibilities, although I feel there is somewhat of an overriding style – the Russian Socialist style.”

“Many Russian and eastern European artists were driven out of their home countries by the political situation there,” she explained. “They came to the U.S. to make art. When I was putting this exhibit together, it was the first time I made the connection to the McCarthy era, and saw where some of the communist scare came from,” said Zang.

While largely focused on national infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, sewer lines, parks and tree planting, Harry Hopkins, WPA director, believed that the work provided by the WPA should match the skills of the unemployed. He instituted the hiring of artists to paint murals in public buildings, sculptors to create park and battlefield monuments, and actors and musicians who were paid to perform.

The inclusion of the fine and performing arts in WPA programs supported the Roosevelt administration’s aim “to bring a halt to the human suffering and put the country on the road to recovery. The administration felt that the creation of make-work jobs for the jobless would restore the human spirit,” according to information found on the web site of the Economics History Association at

“Roosevelt’s philosophy was that it was better to have people working and he felt that art would help enhance people’s lives,” said Zang.

In Milwaukee, where Zang grew up, the Milwaukee Handiworks Project (MHP) taught people to make useful things like furniture and rugs made from recycled clothing. Book binding was another skill taught at the MHP.

“Many of those who learned a new skill, such as book binding, found jobs fairly quickly. So the intent of the WPA program worked, to train people for private sector jobs,” said Zang.

One of Zang’s family-owned WPA artworks from the Milwaukee Handiworks Project is included in the Kettering exhibit.

Researching the WPA art, Zang developed an appreciation for the largest New Deal program. She was pleased to learn that the WPA employed women as well as men, and found it interesting that only one person in a family could have a WPA job.  “I really like the idea of having people working in exchange for assistance. I think it is a healthier stance for a country rather than just having people surviving on subsistence handouts,” Zang said.

“It is better for their self esteem and future skills, especially for women, skills that translated into jobs. The whole intent of the WPA program was to teach and develop marketable skills,” she explained.

The Kettering University art collection is under the auspices of the Liberal Studies department.

More about the first donor to Kettering's art collections - Victor Zink:

Victor Zink worked at General Motors Institute in the English and Speech department, according to Edward Preville, former department chair when it was the department of Humanities and Social Science and long-time friend of Zink. “After GMI he went to work for General Motors and ended up in Labor Relations,” said Preville. 

“I knew Vic well enough and take paintings right off his wall,” he added of his relationship with Zink. In retirement Zink collected for art galleries and had a vast personal collection of art, according to Preville.

“He had been giving art to several other schools, I think Albion was one,” said Preville, “then he found out I was going to build an art gallery at GMI became interested in donating to us. When he saw we were serious about it he told me ‘when you get it built let me know.’”

“We did get a big collection of art from him prior to opening, in fact, we used his donation for the gallery opening.  He was there and gave a talk on why he liked to give art away,” Preville said.

“I used to feel badly about going into their house and pointing out what I liked on the walls, so the third or fourth time I came to pick out art he had assembled 40 to 50 prints in a room and I didn’t feel so bad about choosing from those,” said Preville.

Contact: Dawn Hibbard