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Artists' Responses To Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present

A Traveling Exhibition 2009 - 2012, Curated by Art Hazelwood

show card

Hobos to Street People compares artistic interpretations of homelessness from the Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s to the stigmatized street people of today—with a focus on California. Produced in 2008 to mark the 75th anniversary of the New Deal, this exhibition hearkens back to a time in which the United States government responded to the devastating impact of the Great Depression to assist those in poverty.

Over the years, artists have explored different aspects of poverty and homelessness. During the Depression, WPA artists portrayed the lives of the poorest Americans both in "noble" and negative images. The work of artists such as Dorothea Lange often appeared in popular magazines such as Life and Time, profoundly influencing attitudes towards poverty. From World War II through the 1980s, artists tended to portray the homeless as degenerates unworthy of the government's interest. Contemporary California artists, however, are witnessing, documenting, and commenting on today's poverty in ways more akin to the artists of the Depression era. This exhibition reflects this evolution and examines one of the most fundamental of human needs: shelter.

The exhibition website contains, images of the show, audio, press coverage and a show schedule.

Details on the book Hobos to Street People.

Hobos to Street People features original works by artists who bring a wide range of cultural viewpoints, historical perspectives, and positions on the topic, including Dorothea Lange (featuring works from the de Saisset Museum's permanent collection), Rockwell Kent, Giacomo Patri, Francisco Dominguez, Jane "in vain" Winckleman, Sandow Birk, Art Hazelwood, and the San Francisco Print Collective.

Show schedule

February 19, 2009 – August 15, 2009
The California Historical Society
678 Mission Street, San Francisco, California 94105

August 30, 2009 – October 25, 2009
UC Merced, Kolligian Library, Merced, CA 95344

December 10, 2009 – February 21, 2010
Bakersfield Museum of Art, 1930 R Street, Bakersfield, CA 93301

October 24, 2010 – December 19, 2010
Corona Public Library, 650 South Main Street, Corona, CA 92882

January 27, 2011 – March 11, 2011
Center for the Arts, Religion and Education, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

March 20, 2011 – April 22, 2011
Old Courthouse Museum, 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, CA 92701

July 31, 2011 – December 4, 2011
de Saisset Museum University of Santa Clara, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053

December 18, 2011 – February 12, 2012
Riverside Metropolitan Museum, 3720 Orange Street, Riverside, CA 92501

June 16 – August 5, 2012
Loveland Museum, Loveland Colorado, 503 N. Lincoln Ave. Loveland, CO 80537

September 15 – November 9, 2012
Richmond Art Center, 2540 Barrett Avenue, Richmond, CA 94804, 510.620.6772 •

From July 29 - December 4, 2011 de Saisset Museum Santa Clara University presented Hobos to Street People, and two additional shows, Beyond Hope and Struggle, and This Camera Fights Facsism curated by Art Hazelwood.

Bakersfield Museum of Art
December 10, 2009 - February 21, 2010

Hobos in Bakersfield

Speech delivered by Art Hazelwood at the opening reception of Hobos to Street People at the Bakersfield Museum of Art


Thank you to the Bakersfield Museum of Art for hosting this exhibition. It is an important and a rare thing for museums to address issues of poverty. Here we are in the worst recession since the Depression, and the majority of museums in the San Francisco area where I live are doing fashion shows. If art is to have any connection to society, it must demonstrate that connection in exhibitions like this. For the issue of homelessness this is particularly true because the primary reaction to homelessness, is to pretend it doesn’t exist, or to make it disappear by criminalizing it. And here a museum is holding it up and saying, look this is a serious issue that needs to be understood and effectively addressed. I applaud Bernard Herman and Emily Falke and the Bakersfield Museum of Art for taking this brave step.


Hobos to Street People is an historical survey. It contrasts the period of the Great Depression with the era of modern homelessness, which began in the early 1980s. There are many parallels between the two periods. If one looks at the homeless encampments along the American River in Sacramento, and in Fresno today one can only be struck by the incredible similarities to the photos of Dorothea Lange. And in the agricultural fields today the workers live in conditions very similar to the Depression era images. But of course there are differences. The people in Dorothea Lange’s photos were primarily economic migrants from the Midwest. Today the agricultural workers are economic migrants from the global south.


The art in this show was created by the artists to make homelessness visible. And they often used their art in different ways to get their message out. The art was used as posters, in magazines, street papers, gallery shows, in books, and in Dorothea Lange’s case as Congressional testimony. And this year several pieces in this show were used as testimony to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on housing who was recently in the US.

Let me give you a few facts to put this in context. During the Depression six thousand Dust Bowl migrants arrived in California each month. In 1933 there were more than one million Americans homeless. Unemployment in 1929 stood at 3% and by 1933, 25% of all workers were unemployed. Those are pretty alarming numbers and today’s numbers aren’t great either.

spotThis year the US Department of Education estimates nearly 1 million children will be homeless. Forty million Americans are living in poverty. This year has shown a 9 to 12% increase in people in shelters. Unemployment is above 10% nationwide. Although the real unemployment figure is closer to 16%. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars are moving at faster rates into homelessness than ever before according to the VA. And of course foreclosures are up everywhere. So what has the Federal Governments response been? Over the last four years it has cut all forms of spending on low income housing by two billion dollars, while increasing spending on homeless assistance by 157 million dollars. The message in other words is that it isn’t a system wide failure but simply a failure of individuals. And that is the message driven home again and again. That the problem of homelessness, is a problem of broken individuals.


During the Depression there was a different idea. Artists during the Depression had a sense of the innate nobility of people. They wanted to show that poor people who had lost everything still retained their dignity. So you see again and again, the proud stoic mother in Dorothea Lange’s photos or the determined family in Rockwell Kent’s prints. And the government responded too. The New Deal created programs that assisted artists and gave them opportunities to make this art. But the government also created jobs programs, it addressed the dislocation of farmers from the Midwest and it created agencies to build housing – laying the groundwork for the first federal response to homelessness in US history.


At this time of year charity is on a lot of people’s minds. And charity from individuals is a beautiful thing. But when governments respond to social disasters with charity…when the federal government is giving blankets instead of addressing the problems of inadequate housing, or of homeless children and the needs of returning veterans, then charity is merely a mask and a sham to hide inaction.

This exhibition is evidence of how artists from the Depression era as well as today have used their art to provoke action and to assist in movements towards social justice.

see the official site for the exhbiition