The WPA and Spanish Colonial Style Furniture

July 14 - October 6

Branigan Cultural Center

The 1930s economic depression and resulting job losses caused a steep decline in America’s standard of living. With the 1933 inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt, new federal relief programs were announced with the goal of providing jobs and training to move people out of unemployment. 

image of wooden cabinet

Looking for economic hope and stability, New Mexicans eagerly embraced “New Deal” federal programs such as the Federal Arts Project (FAP), Federal Writers Project (FWP), National Youth Administration (NYA), and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which operated under the umbrella of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). An underlying mission of the WPA programs was to build civic pride by highlighting uniquely American regional artistic and cultural elements.

For New Mexico, that meant focusing on the Indigenous and Spanish heritage of the state, especially their decorative arts. The NYA trained young men and women in vocational skills. Hands-on classes on how to make items such as carved santos, tinwork, retablos, Spanish Colonial style furniture, leatherwork, and colcha embroidery were taught in local communities across the state through the NYA program. In the Mesilla Valley, the vocational training focused on woodworking, tanning, and printing. 

image of Wooden chairs, sofa, and shelving

The woodworking participants were taught all the mechanical aspects from drafting, to furniture construction, and carved decorations. The young men then learned the business of marketing, selling, and record keeping. The Mesilla Valley NYA ran from 1935-1942, and provided furniture for sale to local citizens and the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now New Mexico State University). The WPA programs were eliminated shortly after the United States became involved in World War II. The skills the men and women learned were turned towards war production and manufacturing as the economic depression that necessitated the programs ended with the jobs created by the war. However, the New Mexico programs taught a new generation traditional decorative arts that were in danger of being lost. The furniture pieces in this exhibit are a testimony to the skill and artistic abilities of these people.

image of wooden desk