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American resilience and the Great Depression

"Tenement Flats" by Millard Sheets captures everyday life during the Great Depression. Funded by a government relief program, Sheets' painting became a symbol of community and resilience. It was chosen by the Roosevelts to hang in the White House, validating the program's success and Sheets' talent.

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Video transcript

(sultry piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Smithsonian American Art Museum looking at a painting called Tenement Flats by Millard Sheets. - [Virginia] People hanging out on the front porches, the steps, and in the streets beside the apartment block where they live which is placed against a very high hill in the background. Women and children, their cats, people talking and gesturing. So you feel almost like you walk into the scene. - [Steven] We're in Los Angeles, this is an area known as Bunker Hill. - [Virginia] In the 19th century, this was a very elegant, very important place. There were mansions high up on the hill but had been converted to boarding houses, but having them poised above essentially an apartment building that has small rooms, lots of people crammed in, sets up this dialogue. - [Steven] And it's important to remember that this was painted in 1933, 1934, in the depths of The Great Depression. - [Virginia] Millard Sheets worked for The Public Works of Art Project. It started in December of 1933 and it was pilot program. never before in the history of the United States had there been a relief program to support artists. So under the Roosevelt administration, they decided they would try it out. They were funding through the Civilian Conservation Corp, people to build roads and bridges, there was construction of dams. There were all sorts of ways to fund people who were normally considered working people cause otherwise they were standing in bread lines. They had no money, there were no jobs. So the government decided to set up this project to see what would happen if they paid artists to keep working. Well it turned out to be a smashing success. The program started in December of 1933. In May of '34, so just a few months later, they had a huge show of the work that had been produced at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Well everybody came to see if the money had been well spent and ideally then follow through and launch a new program based on the success of this. For Sheets, whose painting was one of the stars of the show, it was a huge success. President and Mrs. Roosevelt came to the exhibition and they selected things that they wanted to hang at the White House. One of them was Tenement Flats. So there was huge press in the Los Angeles papers. President Roosevelt selects local artist to hang in White House. It was very exciting for everybody and it was very validating for an artist who at that point was not yet even 30. - [Steven] The artist has given us this fantastic architectural space but it's also populated by people we wanna spend time with. These vignettes that make me want to listen in on these conversations. It exposes everyday life, the intimacy of the casual conversation. - [Virginia] The life that these people live really is being celebrated by Sheets. Everything is sunny, people are in comfortable clothing, they're interacting with each other. It's really a statement about American is a place of community where people can relate to each other without criticism, without prejudice, without preconceptions. Everybody is an individual and that's the strength of who we are. - [Steven] I can see why the Roosevelt's chose this painting at a time when the United States was in economic crisis. The idea of community, the idea of this kind of intimacy must have been almost a kind of balm. - [Virginia] And you know, the other thing that Sheets says by showing these people living their daily lives is depression or no depression, it's not gonna get them down. They're gonna keep on living productive, meaningful, interesting lives, just as they always have and presumably always will. (peppy piano music)