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New Deal Art Collectors: An Introduction

Living New Deal’s Advocating of New Deal Art initiative (ANDA) appreciates the important role that art collectors have played in advocating for New Deal art appreciation and preservation. Shortly after New Deal art programs were defunded in the early 1940s, the federal New Deal art collection began to sustain significant losses, often neglected, damaged, and mismanaged by the institutions in whose care New Deal artworks were placed.

As general neglect and the resources to manage this national heritage continued, private collectors who cared about this art and its history began to play an important role in saving New Deal paintings, sculpture, works on paper, decorative art, and other surviving artworks. Depending on their interests, collectors were not limited by a museum’s desire to obtain only works by big name artists, resulting in collections of art that include marginalized and forgotten artists.

New Deal art collectors have also participated in efforts to save New Deal public art, working to protest neglect or destruction of in situ New Deal murals and sculptures in their communities. The ANDA initiative has made it a priority to meet with and learn what leads individuals to collect and treasure New Deal art. This webpage shares information about New Deal art collectors, their collections, and advocacy work.

The Dijkstra Collection

Among New Deal art collectors, Bram and Sandra Dijkstra are well known for both the works they have collected and the exhibitions and publications they have organized. Bram Dijkstra received his PhD from UC Berkeley and became a prolific cultural historian and professor of comparative literature at UC San Diego, where he taught for the past four decades. Earning her Ph.D. in French from UCSD, Sandy began her career as a lecturer in the first Women’s Studies Program at SDSU, and at UCLA, UCI, and UCSD in a variety of fields, including History and French, before transitioning to a career as a literary agent, proudly representing, in addition to America’s top historians, great fiction writers, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Lisa See.

The Dijkstras’ 2023-2024 traveling exhibition, Art for the People: New Deal era painting from the Dijkstra Collection, coincides with the 90thanniversary of the first New Deal legislation and is a testament to their interest in New Deal art’s diversity and preservation. Visiting the exhibition at all of its venues, LND staff enjoyed seeing Art for the People on view at the Crocker Art Museum, in Sacramento, then, at the Oceanside Museum of Art, and, at its final stop, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, where the exhibition closes on March l8, 2024. Dr. Mary Okin, LND’s Assistant Director also conducted an interview with the Dijkstras in October of 2023, published below.

More than forty years ago, Bram and Sandra Dijkstra, then, both professors, (he, of Literature, she, of Women’s Studies), inherited a small stock portfolio from Sandra’s mother, an elementary school teacher, and liquidated it, (at what turned out to be the bottom of the market!), to collect art. Rather than collecting for the purpose of investment, or focusing on big-name artists, they determined to be guided by their love for each work, not confining themselves to one period, nor to one school of art.

Instead, their criteria were beauty and quality. Regardless of whether the work was signed, or unsigned, as long as it spoke to them and they could afford it, they bought it. Armed with his well-schooled eye, Bram led the charge, their only “fights” occurring when Sandra said “NO!”, (which she regrets now!), after which the couple began researching the work, often discovering that, in his/her day, the artist was well-known, though sometimes not.

The deeper they got into collecting, the more Bram was drawn to Depression-era art, because of its very original “Expressionist” imagery, i.e. its humanist perspective, and the relevant social justice values it expressed so powerfully. This led Bram to research the art produced during the WPA (Works Progress Administration) period, and to write American Expressionism: Art & Social Change, 1920-50 (Abrams). Published in 9/ll, just as the Twin Towers in NYC were struck, the exhibition which grew from his book opened at the Columbus Museum of Art, and travelled to the Block Gallery at Northwestern, where Studs Terkel and Garry Wills spoke on opening night, but it got cancelled by the Governor of New Jersey. In place of the Montclair and Newark Museums, the Kennedy Galleries in NYC offered to display a portion of it. Now, twenty years later, one can see a portion of the original exhibition through “Art for the People, WPA-era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection,” a traveling exhibition which opened last February in Sacramento at the Crocker, and then, travelled to OMA, the Oceanside Museum of Art, now on view at the Huntington, in Pasadena, California. Only by purchasing the accompanying catalog/book, which contains essays by Curator Scott Shields, and art historian/curators Henry Adams and Susan Anderson, can one experience the show in full.

One can also view the exhibition through a prerecorded virtual tour hosted by Scott Shields, Chief Curator and Associate Director of the Crocker Art Museum: 

“Curator Talk: Art for the People,” Crocker Art Museum, April 5, 2023

Readers can also watch a panel discussion hosted by the Oceanside Museum of Art, (OMA), which features the authors of the Art for the People catalog:

On October 7th, 2023, Oceanside Museum (OMA) held a discussion on “Art in Times of Crisis”, the panel including Bram Dijkstra, along with Scott Shields, the exhibition’s curator, and curator of American Art at the Crocker Art Museum, art historian Henry Adams, an independent scholar/curator Susan Anderson, each of whom contributed essays for the Art of the People catalog.  

An Interview with the Dijkstras:

During the OMA panel discussion, you mentioned that your WPA collection reflects your student days at UC Berkeley in the sixties, when, Sandy, while Bram was prepping for and taking his Ph.D. orals, participated in the Free Speech Movement protests. When did your interest in New Deal art and its politics begin? 

Bram: I became interested in New Deal art before I came to Berkeley, when I was doing research at Ohio State University. I would find fascinating stuff about the period in the Library in books and magazines from the 1930s. 

Sandy: My theory is that Bram’s interest in art and social justice began much earlier. A child of colonialism, his Dutch family going back to the nineteenth century in Indonesia, where he was raised by two Malay nannies, Bram understood, at a very young age, colonialism from their perspective, which also made him the first feminist in his family, (two of his three elder sisters, Marijke Robinson and Yoka Neumann each becoming leading feminists in New Zealand to which they’d emigrated!). The student protests at UC Berkeley taught me how deeply I cared about justice. Much later, I discovered the concept of tikkun olam–the idea of healing or saving the world—which must have been imbued in me early on by my Jewish background, because, as a child, my mother later told me, I would tell kids in the neighborhood park to “do the right thing”.

Your main criteria for buying art are beauty and also subjects that move you. Did you also prioritize collecting political art?

Sandy: We never set out to collect specific subject matter. Instead, we bought paintings, one by one, as we found them, because we liked them, and because they spoke to us. Over time, as we began to buy more in the WPA period, a story began to form itself, a story with which we could identify as “children of the ‘60s”, because these artists were rebels: they put their lives on the line to fight against fascism, and that really spoke to us, in the sixties, and ever since.

For example, when we moved from Berkeley to San Diego in the late 1960s, I led what turned out to be the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in downtown La Jolla, which is how we came to meet Herbert Marcuse, who became a close friend, and remains an inspiration. I brought the urge to fight for a just world with me from Berkeley, and it inspired the list I would later build as a literary agent, repping, amongst other progressive historians, Eric Foner, Steve Hahn, Manisha Sinha, Walter Johnson, and Lisa McGirr. (Sadly, in recent years, we have lost other pioneers in rewriting “history from the bottom-up”, e.g. Ira Berlin, Larry Levine, Leon Litwack and Gary Nash). This spring, be watching for Hahn’s Illiberal America: A History (Norton), and Maurice Isserman’s Reds: The Tragedy of American Communism, a new history of the Communist Party (Basic).

How did you start collecting New Deal era-art?

Sandy: Bram’s extensive reading in the period led him to determine which artists he/we should chase. In the early 90s, Bram came with me on a publishing trip to New York, bringing along a list of artists he wanted to find. I suggested the phone book. How thrilled these artists were to be remembered, and sought after. They welcomed us into their apartments and studios, shocked that Bram knew which paintings he wanted to see, e.g. Joseph Solman’s World’s Fair painting, Lily Harman’s flaming nude of her mother-in-law, (which she offered to Duncan Phillips for the Phillips Gallery in DC, but he declined, and so, we are the lucky owners of this great painting).

Bram: When we began collecting in the early 1980s, abstract art had already ruled since the 1950s, along with a terrible attitude toward representational art in general, but particularly against 1930s art, having come to dominate after the War. How overjoyed these octogenarian artists were to be re-discovered, a number of them having been famous in their day. That I felt their work was worth rescuing made them so happy. We traveled the country, from museum to museum, from gallery to gallery, hunting up WPA artists and their work along the way. Whenever and wherever we could find them, we met, looked at their work, and discussed it with them.

Why do you think the attitude was so “terrible”?

Bram: Because it resulted in the “cancellation” of these great American WPA-era artists, and the erasing of their body of work for decades, for political reasons, under cover of aesthetic ones. Only now, ninety years after it was created, is the WPA period’s work beginning to be rediscovered.

How did this happen? A large proportion of WPA-era art was created by first-generation immigrants, including many American Jewish artists. Yet, ironically, after World War II, it would be Jewish art critics who led the charge against this work. Clement Greenberg at The Partisan Review, and then, at The Nation, set the table for abstract art. Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Philip Guston had gone abstract by then. Hilton Kramer, at the New York Times, also proselytized for abstraction. 

Both may have been drawn to this position, in part, by the great photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, himself Jewish, who championed an apolitical form of early modernist art. Seeking to assimilate, perhaps, something vaguely anti-Semitic may have inspired their attack, which fit the zeitgeist of the times, as McCarthyism and the Cold War were dawning.

Stieglitz was an upper-class German Jew, (German Jews having arrived in the US before the working-class Eastern Europeans, whose impoverished presence may have embarrassed them!). Determined to be a well-respected American gallerist, Stieglitz avoided the work of his newly-arrived, Eastern European brethren, and progressively weeded Jewish artists from his stable, concentrating instead on a small group of American modernist artists, who were not Jewish. In “American Expressionism”, I describe this first-generation group of immigrant artists as “expressionists”, because they chose to express human emotions rather than to prioritize design and composition. (A book needs to be written on the gallerists of the era, from some of whom we later bought art, who DID support the work of the WPA artists: see way below!)

Indeed, content ruled during the WPA, but, afterward, as the Cold War loomed, content became verboten, unless it prioritized “design”. Apolitical, modernism was neutral, thus, much easier to accept, and to promote, especially as McCarthyism dawned. Greenberg went farther than Stieglitz, denouncing all art which was not “pure”, i.e. abstract. Ironically, Greenberg justified his attack on the politically-inspired of the 1930s, by presenting abstraction as “more progressive”, implying that, as such, it could be seen as vaguely “left”.

When we began collecting back in the early 80s, our radical friends from an older generation, mostly Jewish and assimilated, were readers of The Nation and The New York Times and believed in the ideas of Greenberg and Kramer. They signed on to “the greatness of Abstract art,” or the belief that abstraction would help the cause because, as Greenberg said, it made one think on a higher level because it moved away from the vulgarities of representation–in the process, obfuscating if not obliterating any political content or message. In that dark era, abstraction also protected artists from accusations of being “communist,” the identity which many young New Deal artists on the left, and especially immigrants and people of color, embraced in the 1930s.

Sandy: Unsurprisingly, in the 1930s, the left wasn’t monolithic at all, and there was a lot of in-fighting. Artists in our collection, such as Miron Sokole and Louis Ribak, left New York, because the politics got to be too much. (We later tracked down Bea Mandelman, an artist herself, and Ribak’s widow, in Taos.) Artists like Joseph Solman and Harry Sternberg, who themselves were deeply active politically—participating Artists Against Fascism, and writing for the New Masses—chose to create a modernist art, blending representation and abstraction, an art which was, in their view, aesthetically progressive, which might even be read as avant-garde. Alexander Brook, another member of Artists Against Fascism, refused to sign on to what came to be called “Social Realism”, opting instead for a more classical representational style.

Along with Harry Sternberg, who emigrated to San Diego at the age of 50, his doctor having given him 6 months to live, (he died in his 90s here, his palette transformed by California light), Joseph Solman is one of the WPA artists with whom we became good friends. (His son, Paul Solman, the financial reporter from PBS News Hour for decades, and the founder, in the 1960s, of The Real Paper in Boston, came of age in a very left family, and yet, he has been able to do critical financial reporting on PBS these many years: I’m not sure that he would be hired today.)

Bram:  An example of what progressive artists faced can be found in the case of Hans Burkhardt. Working in Los Angeles after the War, Burkhardt made an “antiwar” painting which the City of Los Angeles was about to purchase. Then, a group of citizens protested, saying “You cannot buy this painting. It is a communist painting. Look at it. It’s all red. The colors in this painting are all red. It’s a sneaky way of pushing redness into our culture.” Indeed, the fifties drew an enduring line against representational art, particularly that which had a progressive perspective.

How many artists did you meet? Did you conduct oral history interviews with them?

Bram:  No, we never counted the number of artists whom we met. Nor did we “conduct oral history interviews with them”, though, of course, we talked with them about the period, and about art, asking questions about their work. In NYC, these also included Mervin Jules, who was in hospital when I met him; we found Harry Gottlieb in his apartment, on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, surrounded by his paintings, and had to plead with him to let one go, which he insisted was unfinished… I bought Philip Reisman’s work directly from him in his Union Square studio, and, after he died, we corresponded with his wife Louise, who was determined to and did preserve his legacy, donating a body of his work to the Museum of the City of New York. Tracking down and meeting Miron Sokole’s widow was illuminating, and led to our meeting their son Peter, a violinist w the Concertgebouw, when he came thru to play with the San Diego Symphony. I believe it was Peter who told us that much of Sokole’s work had perished in a warehouse fire.

The few NYC-based artists who became good friends were Joe Solman and Lily Harmon. In San Diego, we came to know and love Harry Sternberg, who had moved here, purchasing a large body of his work, done back East and later, his West Coast work, which was completely different in palette, much more colorful, the artist clearly dazzled by California light.

Tell me more about what you looked for as collectors of WPA art? 

Bram: We always sought quality, of course, and then, the painting had to speak to us, by reflecting humane concern and values.  Since, too often, this art had been hidden from history, to see WPA work, we needed to get into the museum vaults, OR to find off-the-grid galleries in out-of-the-way towns, like Long Beach, CA, where we found Hugo Gellert’s “Worker and Machine” on the wall over a fireplace in a second-hand bookstore. Antique stores often revealed treasures from the past, as did some of the cheaper auctions—both regional and NYC-based. In this regard, regional museums, especially those in the Rust Belt offered a treasure trove of this period, but, writ large, there were a healthy number of galleries country-wide, from which we bought WPA work, up and down the California coast, from San Diego to Seattle, and around the country. Here’s a partial list:

In LA, the Heritage, George Stern, Tobey Moss, Herbert Palmer; in Santa Barbara, Gary Breitweiser, the Peregrine, Diana Stewart; in Carmel, Karges; in San Francisco, Mark Hoffman, Chet Helms, Jan Holloway; in Portland, Yves Le Maitour; as well as a handful of galleries in NYC, (e.g. the Midtown, ACA, DC Moore, D. Wigmore); in Chicago, Robert Henry Adams and the Aaron Galleries. 

Indeed, one could say it was the Golden Age of art galleries, and our collection would be so much poorer without them. Today, auction houses dominate, but it’s much less FUN! Nothing can beat purchasing art from knowledgeable individual gallerists, passionate about the work they’d found. Today, most of them are found only online, e.g. Helicline, based in NYC, and Chris Walthers’ CW American Modernism, in LA.

Sandra: Hunting high and low, before we knew it, we had what museum folks deemed to be a collection, and apparently, a worthwhile one at that! Our hard and fast rule remained the same: If it was a good painting, and we could afford it, we bought it, signed, or unsigned, and then, what FUN we had researching the artist, and the painting, as we found its place in the story of the WPA era.

Indeed, our “Salon de refuses”, or “discarded art” as we often called it, is an art historian’s collection, going back to the 16th century, though mostly focused on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bram and I did lots of research along the way, as our voluminous files attest. So, ours is a collection of unjustly forgotten artists, and the great work they created. We especially love buying art “thrown away” by museums. In the early 1990s, for example, we sat at our kitchen table, and acquired a dozen paintings from the Met’s Hearn collection, an ensemble of “contemporary art”, built in the 1930s, which the Met was selling off at Christie’s East, their cheaper auction house, a number of which appear in “Art for the People”, including the Blanche, the Costigan, and the Mattson.

Bram:  Following up on my earlier comment about Jewish and progressive artists being “cancelled”, I view the period just after the Second World War as one of the most anti-Semitic periods in American history. Unsurprisingly, in response, Jews moved to the suburbs, and assimilated into the professional and academic worlds, so not be seen as “too” Jewish. And, they bought abstract art, also supporting museums like MOMA which featured it. In the process, along with their shared class status, the sense of kinship between African Americans and Jews vanished.

Moving to the topic of exhibitions focused on your work, this is not the first exhibition drawn from your collection, right?

Sandy: Over the years, we’ve lent to a number of museum shows, and have enjoyed seeing four exhibitions drawn exclusively from our collection, mostly focused on forgotten artists, as has so much of Bram’s scholarship since his Hieroglyphics of a New Speech, although one could say that when it was published, in l969, no one was yet focused on  the Stieglitz group, e.g.  O’Keeffe, Hartley, Dove, Marin. In fact, some thirty years later in l999, the then-curator of American Art at the Met, with whom we met to discuss Bram’s research for American Expressionism, was so proud to show off his new gallery devoted to the Stieglitz group!

1. The first full-blown exhibition drawn from our collection was Naked: 20th Century American Nudes from the Dijkstra Collection at the Oceanside Museum of Art, which ran in 2014-15. Daniel Foster, OMA’s brave Director at the time, having discovered that Bram had just published a book called Naked: The Nude in American Art (Rizzoli), mounted this show, which elicited some protest. Puritanism still reigns in American museums, which don’t usually show the nude, so that, when we were doing research, curators had to take us into museum vaults to see their nudes, which is why, originally, Bram had planned on calling his book Hidden Bodies. As a result of reigning Puritanism, and the interdiction on presenting nudes, leading American art collectors shunned them too, making it possible for us to put together an amazing group of nudes over the years, including European masterpieces from the late l9th and early 20th centuries.

 2. More recently, just before the Covid closed the country down, the Timken Museum, San Diego’s Frick, presented “Captivating Women”, a small exhibition of our turn-of-century images of women, which grew into a much larger show mounted by the Crocker in Sacramento, called “Scheherazade and Her Sisters, Representations of Women.” Covid meant, sadly, that almost no one got to see it.

 3. In 2022, the San Diego History Center ran Collecting San Diego, a show based on our collection of works by San Diego artists, historical and contemporary. 

 4. And, in 2023, we were thrilled to present Art for the People, differing greatly from other recent New Deal-era art exhibitions, which often focus on the Midwest and East Coast artists. Our selection features many artists who were famous in their day, but who sadly, have been forgotten. A few years back, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, an illuminating exhibition. However, unlike ours, it featured fewer less-famous artists, which is among the strengths of our collection. This fall, the Met’s Art for the Millions openedDrawn largely from the Met’s vaults, and curated by print specialists, it features fewer paintings, due in part, perhaps, to our having purchased a number of the Met’s masterpieces.

Final thoughts on advances in the field of New Deal art studies connected to your Art for the People exhibition?

WPA-era treasures are still to be found, and we hope that art lovers will hunt for them, informing themselves by reading in the field. Visit (and support) regional museums and galleries, and welcome each visual experience which speaks to them, whether the work was made by a known, or unknown artist. Start Local. Artists, historical and contemporary, in your hometown desperately await your attention.

And, subscribe to the magazines which cover regional art, e.g. American Art Review, American Fine Arts, and Art & Antiques, which present regional exhibitions, as well as important collections, reviewed by art critics, telling the story of American art which is not being told by the bigger magazines or newspapers, nor shown by the larger museums. 

We hope you’ll get to see Art for the People, now at the Huntington thru March l8th, although, to see it in full you’ll need to purchase the catalog! It is unique in including works by California artists, including women and people of color, and thus, painting a fuller portrait of WPA-era art. The great erasing of this period’s art, which occurred over the past 90 years, the censorship of WPA-era art, truth be told, has been caused by the gatekeepers, i.e. the curators and the critics, who, over the years, have deleted this art in favor of “modernism.” 

 A few years back, Art Institute Chicago presented America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s. We were all excited about it, only to discover that it included all the old warhorses: Hopper, O’Keeffe, etc. Again, it presented only “modernism” from the period. In our experience, the big museums have been significantly behind the curve, but now, happily, art history is being rewritten before our eyes via the exhibitions of regional art in the smaller museums of America, by scholars who focus on forgotten artists, and by the magazines which run stories on their exhibitions. An entirely new and rich art history is being written beneath the level of the BIG museums.

We are so grateful to the museums and curators, especially Scott Shields (Crocker), Dennis Carr (Huntington), and Maria Mingalone (OMA), who opened their minds and doors to organize and present this more inclusive view of the WPA era in Art for the People, and also those who have exhibited works from other portions of our collections early on. Snobs beware….your days are numbered! The art world is opening up, finally, so that art can be FOR THE PEOPLE, as it was always meant to be. To discover more about some of the unjustly forgotten artists in our collection, readers should consult Charles Eldredge’s Unforgettables: Expanding the History of American Art (UC Press), in which the former Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum presents short essays by the creme-de-la-creme of American Art historians and curators on these unjustifiably “forgotten” artists, many of them from the WPA era.

To see Art for the People, please visit the exhibition at The Huntington Library and Gardens through March 18, 2023. Or purchase the catalog.

To learn more about the reception of this exhibition see reviews in:

The San Diego Tribune, Power of the People: Exhibit showcases North County collectors’ Depression-era paintings, June 2023

The Del Mar Times, Del Mar couple Bram and Sandra Dijkstra offer a new look at WPA art, June 2023

The LA Times, Column: Remembering when the government wasn’t afraid to let artists tell the truth about capitalism, September 2023

KPBS Local News, Oceanside Museum of Art hosts ‘Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings’, September 2023

Living New Deal. Still Working for America.

And the Winners are . . .

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.

The 2023 New Deal Book Award

The winning titles and authors have been announced. The 2023 Award, with a prize of $1,000, will be presented at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library June 22, 2024.