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Practical Advice & Preserving New Deal Art

We at the Living New Deal often hear about controversies involving New Deal art, particularly murals in public buildings.

People around the country approach us for help in answering challenges to valued artworks and understanding the options for preservation. We have, therefore, come up with this short advisory for those facing such controversies.

As an organization preserving and publicizing the accomplishments of the New Deal, 1933-42, we believe that the public art sponsored by the New Deal art is witness to a period of optimism, communal spirit, and government activism in the midst of great distress and widespread despair in the Great Depression. That a diverse group of unemployed artists could be put to work beautifying public spaces and raising the spirits of the American people throughout the country, still resonates.

New Deal artworks are a national treasure because they were funded by the American people and they represent a unique collaboration among artists, government, and local communities. We believe that the schools, post offices, libraries, and other civic buildings that house these works have a responsibility to protect, promote, and interpret this legacy to today’s viewers.

We recognize, however, that some New Deal art has become problematic. Some depictions of history or daily life from the 1930s now seem obsolete and perpetuate racial stereotypes, celebrate colonialism and devalue people of color. We respect those who do not want to be confronted repeatedly by images of enslaved people, “savage natives”, or a parade of “heroic” White men. We agree that some New Deal art should be removed, placed out of sight or kept as museum pieces.

We caution strongly against hasty judgements, however. The vast majority of New Deal art was created to honor common folk, tell local stories and inspire the American people, and most of it is of significant artistic merit. There must be a balance between meeting modern standards of justice and preserving historically significant artworks. In very few cases should works of art ever be destroyed.

This conversation goes to the heart of America’s evolving view of itself and it can become heated because it matters to our national future. All parties need to listen to each other and deliberate carefully about the fate of artistic assets that belong to us all. In that spirit, we offer this set of considerations for dealing with controversial New Deal art.

  1. Find out who controls the artwork. It is important to determine who owns the art, who has a rightful interest in it and what voices should be heard before taking action. Many New Deal artworks are in the public domain and managed by the General Services Administration (GSA) in trust for the American people. A private owner or a local postmaster may not have the right to dispose of an artwork without further approval.
  2. Consider the work as an historic artifact. Artworks are windows on the past and valuable for what they teach us about American history. Should we take offense at representations of what took place and how the dominant culture thought about it, or can we use them as evidence of what was wrong? Problematic parts of our history cannot be expunged by eliminating images of them, however distressing. Looking forthrightly at attitudes expressed in a 75-year-old mural can show us how our nation has changed since then.
  3. Avoid hasty interpretations of artwork. Multiple readings of art are common. The message of a New Deal mural may be more subtle, and more subversive, than it seems at first impression; it cannot be assumed that the artist meant to glorify the things depicted. Many New Deal artists were progressives who, when they could, criticized racism, imperialism, genocide, and economic exploitation, and they regularly honored the labor and lives of common people, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. For example, a mural showing Black people working in the fields may have been celebrating their contribution to the region. Similarly, a mural with both Black and White workers, but the former in a lower-status jobs, or even enslaved, can be an honest portrayal of local history, not a racist act. In fact, if a panoramic mural in a southern state didn’t include African-American laborers, it would be a strange whitewash of local history!
  4. Understand the artistic value of the work. It is common to hear that good art is just a matter of personal opinion, but this is not true. There are people with the expertise to assess the value of a work and the skill of the artist. Art historians can spot a difficult and relatively rare medium such as fresco or bas-relief. Consulting an expert or taking time for research can reveal value that is not obvious and temper hasty judgements. (It can also confirm that a knock-off statue of a military officer or former president is not a worthy piece of art.)
  5. Think of the viewers and their experience. A mural in an elementary school is not the same as one in a high school or post office. Certainly, young children should not be exposed to pictures that could make them feel uncomfortable. New Deal artists did some delightful works for children, but the imagery can be stereotypical and exclusionary; removing these murals from view is justifiable. Older students and adults, however, are capable of understanding anachronistic imagery, especially with guidance; good explanatory signage can put art into context and acknowledge critical views.
  6. Consider the opinions of the wider community. Is there widespread agreement about removal or is the criticism confined to a small group? While it often takes a few courageous voices to spur a community to action, the vocal few also need to listen to others. New Deal art belongs to the entire community around a school, a post office or a town hall; in fact, each is part of a national public art portfolio belonging to all Americans. Removal should not rest only on the objections of a vocal few; input must be sought from the larger community and groups depicted in the artwork.
  7. Seek positive alternatives. Is there an educational opportunity here? Constructive responses can use New Deal murals to spark consideration of historical events, national mythologies, and how artists portray them. One approach is to provide explanatory and critical literature by the artwork or, better yet, interactive kiosks that solicit viewers comments; a broader approach, especially in schools is to create student research assignments and build school curricula around a mural. An especially successful response has been to commission a counter mural by a local artist that creates a visual dialogue between past and present. Where a work of art is controversial, it can be better to engage in a (perhaps painful) conversation than to simply make an offending work vanish.
  8. Find out the options for preservation. Most oil-on-canvas paintings or free-standing sculptures can be taken down and placed in protective storage. Offensive art can often be placed in a museum setting along with similar works as a way to illustrate (and learn from) a cruel past and its ideologies. Documentation is vital; many New Deal artworks have gone missing over the years from sheer forgetfulness. The least costly solution for a disputed artwork can be to simply cover it up; drapery, plywood, and drywall will not damage wall murals and can be removed at a later time. Covering is normally the only option for frescoes, which are painted directly on the wall and cannot be dislodged without damage or at great expense.

The Living New Deal believes that artistic legacy of the New Deal need to be appreciated as part of a larger story of an activist government that promoted a democratic American art accessible to all. That is still a valuable principle 75 years later. Although some of that art has dated poorly and our thinking has evolved, most New Deal art is still an inspiration and a valuable reminder of what could be done today if the federal government put more resources into public art and public education.

We urge principals, school boards, postmasters, librarians, and others who face demands to remove or destroy New Deal art to be cautious in weighing public opinion and exploring their options. The best solution is usually to find ways to make these artifacts relevant to today’s rethinking of America’s racial order and its unfulfilled promises of equality and justice.

Below are several strategies for preserving New Deal history from threats of demolition, sale, or other types of loss.

We have categorized the strategies, but you should read the whole list to see which ones might apply to the particular situation in your community. The first few suggestions are proactive: these are actions you can take to highlight the importance of local New Deal history before threats arise. As you go down the list, the tips become more applicable to urgent preservation problems.

Make New Deal History Visible

Apply For A Historic Marker or Plaque: Try to get your local government, state government or a non-profit organization to place a historic marker at the site. As examples, see the Florida Historical Marker Program and the Norwalk Historical Society House Plaque Program.

Get It Registered: Try to get the historic site listed on a state or local registry of historic properties. As an example, see the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places.

Obtain National Recognition: If this is a major site or building, consider applying to the National Register of Historic Places or as a National Historic Landmark. Instructions can be found at “Where to Start (How to list a property,” and “Learn How to Nominate a Property for NHL Designation.”

Contact Local Experts and Organizations: In almost every case, it helps to have more and better information about the site, building or work of art, such as who designed it, which agency paid for it, and when it was begun and completed. Your state historic preservation office (SHPO) or local historical society ought to be able to provide useful assistance and advice. The National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers has a directory of SHPOs. Additionally, local history or architectural organizations may be willing to help draft applications for markers and applications to historical registries.

Suggest Practical Alternatives, Compromises, and Incentives When a Site is Threatened With Sale or Destruction

Tax Credits: Check to see if the historic site is eligible for any type of historic preservation tax credit; if so, it can be used as an incentive to preserve or rehabilitate the site instead of destroying it. See, for example, the National Park Service article, “Tax Credit Basics.”

Conservation Easements: Suggest to the owner the possibility of a conservation easement. In these types of arrangements the owner retains possession of the property, but gives development or alteration rights to a preservation trust in exchange for tax benefits. See, for example, the National Park Service article, “Easements to Protect Historic Properties: A Useful Historic Preservation Tool with Potential Tax Benefits.”

Adaptive Reuse: Older buildings can often be modernized on the inside to accommodate present-day uses and technology, while having their exteriors preserved. This may be a point of compromise with those advocating for demolition due to ‘obsolescence’. For more information, see “Best Practices in Adaptive Reuse,” by the Kraemer Design Group, and “How to Support Adaptive Reuse of Historic Buildings,” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Environmental Benefits of Preservation: According to a 2011 report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality.” Hence, environmental protection might be a key argument in your overall strategy, and you may want to solicit or demand an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the site from your local or state government. Indeed, EIRs are often required for major projects, especially those involving public spaces.

Cost-Benefit Analysis: Consider commissioning a study to determine if preservation would be less expensive than rebuilding or relocating. According to the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas, “Historic preservation conserves resources, reduces waste, and saves money by repairing and reusing existing buildings instead of tearing them down and building new ones.” For example, several historic buildings at the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind were saved, in part, because building a new campus at a different location was deemed more expensive (see “School for deaf and blind to stay put,” WV Metro News, October 10, 2013).

Go on the Offensive

Meet with Your Political Representatives: There are likely to be sympathetic members of city councils, county boards, and state legislatures, not to mention staff members of Congressional representatives and local offices of US senators. Do not hesitate to make appeals to these people and insist on meeting with them; they are normally very open to meeting their constituents. Be sure to have your arguments in order before you go, and take along local experts, if possible.

Gather Local Support: If you find that owners or local government are not responsive, devote time and energy to recruiting public support. Many community members and organizations (e.g., museums, historical societies and preservation groups) have a passion for protecting local history. Consider a petition, letter-writing campaign, newspaper ads, community rally, etc.  See how a grassroots effort recently saved a historic house: “South Windsor Main Street Residents Save Olcott House From Demolition,” Hartford Courant (CT), May 19, 2016.

Create a Campaign: In some cases, a small group of people, or even just one person, can accomplish a surprising amount. However, depending on your time and resources, and the importance of the site, consider creating (or joining) a wide-ranging campaign to preserve your New Deal history. This might include the creation of a website and working with preservation advocates outside your area. For examples, consider campaigns that have been created to save Post Office history(both structures and art): Save the Berkeley Post OfficeThe National Post Office Collaborate, and Save the Post Office.

Legal Remedies: Search for state laws or local ordinances (including conservation easements, see above) which might protect the property. See “Local Preservation Laws,” National Trust for Historic Preservation. Consult with local and state preservation organizations for advice. Some law firms will work pro bono or for reduced rates on such public-spirited cases – but beware of running up legal fees!

If New Deal Artwork Is Threatened, Contact the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA): Threatened New Deal artwork may be the property of the federal government. Many such artworks were lost or inappropriately sold off in the past. If the art is indeed government property, it is not legal to sell or destroy the piece, and the GSA can demand its return to public hands. For more information, see, “New Deal Artwork: Ownership and Responsibility,” U.S. General Services Administration.

Buy It: Perhaps your organization or community has the resources to buy the New Deal site or structure in order to save it. See how a non-profit organization and a church worked together to save a historic house from demolition by purchasing it: “Cross-town: Greeley church buys historic home, prevents destruction,” Greeley Tribune (CO), November 29, 2015. Also, see the interesting case of a WPA-built governor’s mansion that has been bought, relocated, and then purchased again through auction: “Old governor’s mansion sells at auction,” Rapid City Journal (SD), August 23, 2013.

By applying one or more of these strategies, you will become a proud defender of the public domain and the historic legacy of your community!

Living New Deal. Still Working for America.