Today's economic woes pale in comparison with the trauma that sparked the New Deal. In 1933, the national unemployment rate hit 25 percent. Factories stood idle, shipyards empty, farms bankrupt after years of drought, insect plagues and falling crop prices. Out-of-work businessmen queued up for free food in suits and ties while the more destitute lined their worn-out shoes with newspapers. Rabble-rousers stoked fear and preached revolution.

Who needed art in such volatile times?

Strange as it may seem today, President Franklin Roosevelt figured that paintings were just the ticket. They were among the many things he threw at the problems of a hungry, despairing country. Launched in December 1933, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) lasted only seven months but in that short time 3,750 artists turned out 15,600 artworks that went to libraries, schools and public offices nationwide.

More than 50 of the pictures are on view in "1934: A New Deal for Artists" at the Minnesota History Center through Sept. 30. They're all on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., which organized the show and published its well researched catalog ($34).

As snapshots of their time, the paintings present a surprisingly varied landscape that includes One Percenters at play, as well as the 99 percent at work (or not). Artists were urged to document the "American scene" and help reknit the nation's frayed social fabric. They headed for the subways and the byways, depicting street festivals, tenements and workers where they found them -- in barbershops, cotton fields and coal mines. There are vistas of country roads, small towns, freshly plowed fields and even a marvelous pair of mountain lions.

In a loosely cubistic style, Colorado artist Ila McAfee Turner shows the lions gazing down from a rocky ledge at the magnificent forests of Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Just the sight of them, sleek, powerful, yet contented, lifts the spirits today as it must have then. If creatures like that can thrive in America, surely people can, too, the picture seems to say.

In his lively "Racing," Gerald S. Foster depicts sleek yachts zooming across Long Island Sound, taut sails dipping in stiff breezes as clouds scuttle overhead and waves tumble over pink and aqua hulls. Agnes Tait wraps an aura of happiness, if not prosperity, around families sledding and skating in Central Park as twilight falls, lights twinkle on and a soft glow silhouettes New York's skyscrapers. Likewise, Morris Kantor infuses "Baseball at Night" with cheerful camaraderie, and subtly emphasizes what was then a novelty -- light grids atop tall poles -- as a colorful crowd watches a minor-league game.

Men at work

Hard work and tough times are more typical, however. Jacob G. Smith's painting of "Snow Shovelers" depicts men with shovels striding along a snowy path, a cross-section of race and class who are now reduced to clearing snow in a work-relief program. Tyrone Comfort's painting of a muscular miner curled into a cleft of rock as he probes for gold with a pneumatic drill is a compelling, discordant symphony in brown. Earle Richardson brings monumental dignity -- and handsome design -- to barefoot cotton pickers in his "Employment of Negroes in Agriculture."

Minnesota artists participated, too. Arnold Ness Klagstad's "Archer Daniels Midland Elevator" records grain storage facilities looming over a shabby Minneapolis street under a sky whose midday darkness seems to echo the troubled times. E. Dewey Albinson's "Northern Minnesota Mine" is a cheerier canvas with its colorful ramshackle buildings perched at the edge of a vast ore pit. While Albinson's deft composition and engaging colors enliven the scene, empty streets and four weary miners in the foreground hint at the community's struggle.

Avant garde European art ideas creep in at times. Kenneth M. Adams adapts Cezanne's blocky brush work and Matisse's unconventional colors in his commanding portrait of "Juan Duran," a stocky man with greenish hair and rainbow-hued clothes. Meanwhile, Paul Kelpe marshaled a cascade of pastel gears, wheels and planes into an abstraction suggestive of a factory. And Douglass Crockwell appears to have channeled Fernand Léger's mechanized men into his "Paper Workers," a dour scene in which clay-colored Lego-like workers tend enormous rolls of paper generated by a monstrous machine.

Roosevelt was so taken with the program that he had 32 of its paintings hung in the White House, seven of which are shown here. Though the program lasted only a few months, the idea of putting artists to work for the nation -- painting murals, taking photos, teaching art -- continued throughout the 1930s. Not all of this is great stuff, but it is well worth a look. And together the paintings recall a time when a down-and-out country lent a hand to anyone who needed it, and everyone benefited. • 612-673-4431