Art for the People: WPA Works

Having grown up in Detroit, with many visits to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I’m familiar with the monumental WPA “Detroit Industry” murals by Diego Rivera painted there.  However recently I have gained a much deeper appreciation of the scope and importance of the New Deal’s Works Project Administration program by viewing paintings from the remarkable collection of Del Mar residents Bram and Sandra Dijkstra, which is now on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art (OMA).


Bram and Sandra Dijkstra. Photo by Art Olson.

“Art for the People: WPA-Era Artwork from the Dijkstra Collection” captures the history, aesthetics and social turmoil of depression era America in a way that still resonates today.  Many of the artists funded by the Roosevelt era program were themselves first- or second- generation immigrants to this country, and with keen observational skills displayed the fraught nature of those times. Paintings span artistic representational styles but focus mainly on the human condition. In experiencing these works, one can feel immersed in that period of time, with its economic hardships, labor struggles and looming threat of Fascism , and sense its resonance with today’s world. While most of us view the WPA Art Program as producing murals and other large public art, this exhibit succeeds in showing the human-scale of the program and places its output into a larger yet more personal context.


Del Mar is fortunate to have the Dijkstras as longtime residents, having settled here in 1969.  As generous neighbors they volunteered to serve as docents to the lucky group of Del Marians who traveled with the Del Mar Community Connection vans to see the exhibit on August 11.  The group of about 20 got a private tour of the collection from the collectors themselves and were able to hear details of the acquisitions and their personal meanings.  Penny Abell, one of the DMCC group, described the experience as both delightful and enlightening.


The exhibit has received very positive reviews in a number of publications and at the time of this writing the Dijkstras are being interviewed for a PBS segment about the show and their view on the importance of the art of this period in America, which was created to be accessible and meaningful to the general public.  A trip up to Oceanside to view this exhibit is well worth the effort. I believe you will be as captivated as your Del Mar neighbors who have seen it already.  If you miss it at OMA, which closes in November, the collection will next travel to the Huntington Library Art Museum in San Marino.  An excellent catalogue of the show is available, and it will reinforce and expand your appreciation of the paintings and for the motivations behind the Dijkstra Collection.

images of Dijkstra Collection at OMA

All photographs by Art Olson (click to enlarge)

One wall of OMA exhibit
Worker and Machine, Hugo Gellert, 1928
Homeless, Mitchell Siporin, 1939
A Vail in Death Valley, Helen Forbes, 1939
Soldier, Charles White, 1944
Wood Interior, John Costigan, circa 1931
Silent Men, Nils Gren, 1938
Coal Miner and Family, Harry Sternberg, 1938
De Profundis, William Gropper, 1942