Agency Reclaims Imperiled Murals

Five new Deal murals painted in 1938 were in limbo when the Eureka Federal Building was sold.

Nearly lost?
Five new Deal murals painted in 1938 were in limbo when the
Eureka Federal Building was sold.

Five Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) murals by Thomas Laman will return to public view after more than a decade in limbo. The murals, which depict mining, farming, railroad building, and fauna of northern California, are being restored and will head to McKinleyville, California when a new federal courthouse is completed there next year.

Laman painted the tempera murals in 1936 for the Federal Building in Eureka, California. The building, which has served as a U.S. post office and courthouse since 1911, was sold to a private company in 2002, leaving the fate of its New Deal murals up in the air.

Only a lucky accident saved the Eureka murals.

Last year, the lawyer for the building’s owner contacted the Living New Deal for a referral to an art appraiser—a first step toward selling or donating the murals. We contacted Michael Ramos, an agent in the Office of the Inspector General at the General Services Administration, which oversees federal properties. Ramos’s cases include recovering New Deal art, usually WPA easel paintings. Upon learning that the historic Eureka murals might be removed he launched an investigation.

The murals, by Thomas Laman, are on their way to a new home after the GSA intervened.

Courthouse Mural, Eureka, Calif.
The murals, by Thomas Laman, are on their way to a new home after the GSA intervened.

The GSA concluded that the owner of the building did not have the right to dispose of the murals. After extensive negotiations, ownership of the murals was “conveyed back” to the GSA. In September, the agency officially reclaimed them—essentially returning the murals to public ownership.

There is no official policy about who owns the art in federal buildings, such as post offices, once they are sold. Many public artworks have been lost as a result.

The GSA considers site-specific art to be part of the structure. However, until recently it required only that the GSA be notified if artworks were to be removed once federal properties were sold. Thanks to renewed interest in New Deal artwork, the GSA now retains ownership of the art. It can choose to “loan” it to the building’s owner, but can reclaim it at any time.

Despite mounting public pressure to do so, the U.S. Postal Service, which claims control over all post office artwork, has never articulated its policy for protecting these cultural treasures.

As more federal properties are declared surplus and sold to private buyers, communities are mobilizing to keep the artworks inside—many the legacy of the New Deal—accessible to the public, which, after all, paid for them.

Books: The WPA American Guide Series Makes a Comeback

WPA Guide to California, 1939

WPA Guide to California
1939

In another sign that America is waking up to the rich legacy left to us by the WPA, the American Guide Series— out of print since the 1940s—is being reissued as quality paperbacks, which are selling well. Over the last decade, university presses and other publishers have rediscovered the value of these well-researched, vividly written and wide-ranging guidebooks. Though the books are now 70 years old, “they are no more obsolete than any other great works of American literature,” says David Kippen, who wrote introductions to the recently reprinted WPA guides to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

The guidebooks are probably the best-known publications of the WPA’s Federal Writers Project. Like other WPA arts projects, the American Guide Series had multiple goals. It employed out-of-work writers, fostered a sense of local pride, and promoted much-needed tourism. While the federal government paid the salaries of some 6,000 writers of the series, each state was responsible for printing and distributing the books.

The guides more or less followed a standard format—covering the geology, history, industry, agriculture, government, and natural resources of each of the 48 states and the District of Columbia. Major cities, large towns, and characteristic regions were discussed in detail, and sometimes embellished with cultural trivia and regionalist charm  Readers could find out, for example, that Mays Landing, New Jersey is the national capital of nudism; that Nevadans like to eat at lunch counters; and that the favorite names for Tennessee coon dogs are Drum, Ring, Gum, and Rip.

WPA Guide to New York City

WPA Guide to New York City
1939

The guidebooks were so popular that the series expanded to cover 27 individual cities; fifteen regions, such as the Berkshire Hills and Monterey Peninsula. Many of the guides had annotated “motor tours” and some were exclusively dedicated to destinations, such as “Ghost towns of Colorado,” and “The Ocean Highway: New Brunswick, New Jersey to Jacksonville, Florida.”

One of the most interesting of American Guide Series is “Washington City and Capital.” Originally published in 1937, it is replete with fascinating history and lore, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt questioned its utility as a guidebook because it weighs four pounds. A condensed, more portable size was subsequently published.

Like the murals the WPA commissioned for government buildings, these books assured Americans that their local sights and activities were part of a great American story worthy of being captured in print or paint.

The American Guide Series died out with the rest of the New Deal in the early 1940s, but the books became sought-after collectors’ items and are still used by travelers and valued by history buffs. Indeed these guidebooks remain useful and entertaining. They offer, in Kippen’s words, “a keepsake of all that’s lost, a Baedeker to how much survives, and an example of what writers and America once did for each other, and might again.”

Exhibition Celebrates WPA Artist Leon Bibel

 

Protest with Flag
Watercolor by Leon Bibel, 1945

“Art, Activism, and the WPA,” on exhibit at the University of Richmond Museums in Virginia, focuses on the passionate social engagement of New Deal artist Leon Bibel (1913-1995), whose work depicts “the social ills of racism, poverty, unemployment, and war; the necessity of protest; and the shared humanity of the common worker.”

Art on display includes a painting called “The Lynching,” the lithograph “Unemployed Marchers,” and many scenes of the Spanish Civil War.

Curator Phyllis Wrynn of the Park Slope Gallery in Brooklyn, who knew the artist personally, says Bibel “saved everything.” The exhibition includes documents, photographs, and sketches from Bibel’s 9-year stint working for the Federal Art Project of the WPA. Bibel worked as an assistant to Bernard Zakheim in San Francisco and then moved to New York City and joined the FAP there. The financial security that came with this government job and the sense of being involved in a vital art movement made the WPA years the happiest of his life. According to Wrynn, Bibel told her “It was a miracle to be paid to do what he loved,” and spoke of “the camaraderie among the artists who supported each other’s efforts in many ways, eagerly sharing techniques, supplies, and information.”

Wrynn made a short film about Bibel’s life and work to accompany the exhibit. (See it on-line at http://parkslopegallery.com/html/leon-bibel-movie.html.) Documentary footage, photos, Bibel’s paintings and drawings, and his on-camera reminiscences give a vivid shapshot of the art world in the 1930s. The New Deal art projects and the Artist’s Union are prominently featured.

Like the Bernard Zakheim exhibition held in San Francisco two years ago, this show foregrounds the artist’s WPA connection. Although many artists of that generation spent some time working for the Federal Art Project, this has often been treated as a tangential or even embarrassing part of their careers. The Living New Deal is delighted to see the WPA finally getting credit for nurturing artists’ careers, sponsoring memorable works, and contributing significantly to the development of 20th century American art.

Information about the exhibition and related programs is at http://museums.richmond.edu/exhibitions/lora-robins-gallery/Leon-Bibel.html.

Park Ridge Illinois Celebrates Restored Post Office Mural!

A post office mural rescued by a high school history teacher and restored through the contributions of scores of citizens has returned by public view after more than 40 years.

“Indians Cede the Land” by George Melville Smith was installed at the Park Ridge, Illinois Post Office in 1940. It remained there until 1970, when the building was sold. Learning that the mural was slated for destruction, teacher and history buff Paul Carlson enlisted two of his students on a rescue mission. They sprayed the mural with varnish, pried it off the wall, and removed it to Mr. Carlson’s home. On Mr. Carlson’s death in 2008, his family delivered the mural to the Park Ridge Public Library. It took several years to secure the funds for restoration—a number of local organizations and individuals contributed—and Parma Conservation completed the job this year. The mural was unveiled in a ceremony at the Library on February 22, 2013.

ParkRidgeMuralPhoto“Indians Cede the Land” is an oil-on-canvas mural that portrays, in a symbolic way, the acquisition of the lands around Chicago from local tribes in the early 1800s. Smith won the commission from the Treasury Section of Fine Arts after painting murals for two other local post offices and an elementary school.  His career is an emblematic one for New Deal artists: He studied art at night school, worked as a commercial artist, spent some time in Europe, exhibited at the Art Institute, got some exposure at the Century of Progress fair in 1933, and joined the Illinois Art Project of the WPA as soon as it was created. Although he was primarily an easel painter, Smith became the supervisor of the WPA’s applied arts project.

The Park Ridge Public Library has produced a nice pamphlet about the mural and the restoration effort. More information is available at www.parkridgelibrary.org.

 

Who Owns the New Deal’s Art?

After more than a half-century of indifference, the federal government has become interested in the New Deal art that it commissioned, paid for, and then lost track of. A recovery effort is under way.

At issue are thousands of easel paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures produced by artists working for the Federal Art Project of the WPA, the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, and other Depression-era agencies. Some of the works were loaned out to schools, libraries, and government offices; others were haphazardly stored. When the art-funding agencies disbanded with the onset of WWII, their inventories were essentially abandoned—left in place, lost, stolen, sold as scrap, auctioned off as “government surplus,” or simply thrown away. Much of it ended up in private hands.  Now the General Services Administration wants it back.

About ten years ago the GSA began monitoring galleries, auctions, and on-line sales for art with Federal Art Project labels or other identifying marks. On the theory that they still belong to the government, the agency confiscates works that it verifies as New Deal art. Owners are not reimbursed or even allowed a tax deduction. The art is placed in public buildings or given to museums.

A New Deal painting signed C. Henry. Recovered by the GSA. Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

A New Deal painting signed C. Henry.
Recovered by the GSA

 

The GSA emphasizes that it steps in only when there is a “sales event” and will not interfere with private holdings. Still, some collectors challenge the whole effort, maintaining that the government relinquished its claim to the art through poor stewardship over the years. They are indignant at what they consider government “seizure” of private property. For its part, the GSA maintains that New Deal art belongs to the American people. (The GSA Art Recovery web page is here.)

This situation presents WPA-art aficionados with a conundrum. For years, passionate individuals documented and promoted the New Deal legacy when few in Washington were interested. Some bought, found, or were given art that nobody else seemed to want, frequently investing in restoring and conserving it. Now that their efforts have helped make New Deal art “hot” again, the Feds show up. On the other hand, people interested in New Deal artifacts tend to believe in public institutions and would probably agree that ultimately these works should find their way back there. The problem may have more to do with the GSA’s approach than with its goal.

It does seem ironic that the GSA is spending scarce resources tracking down small works of variable artistic value while failing to protect the far more significant large-scale New Deal murals and sculptures in the hundreds of post offices and other government buildings that it is allowing to pass into private hands.

The University of California, Berkeley, mistakenly labeled a 22-foot- long sculpture by New Deal artist Sargent Johnson as surplus and sold it for $150.

One that got away.
The University of California, Berkeley, mistakenly sold a 22-foot- long sculpture by New Deal artist Sargent Johnson as surplus for $150. The buyer sold the work for a hefty profit to the Huntington Art Museum.

Long-Hidden New Deal Mural May Reappear

A “communistic” New Deal mural unseen for over 50 years may soon re-appear. Officials at Roosevelt Alternative High School in Rockford, Illinois, are consulting with an art restorer about uncovering the large painting by local artist Herbert Rosengren, created in 1934 under CWA sponsorship. Upon installation the work was described as celebrating “labor in harmony,” but a few years later the local American Legion criticized it for showing “shackled labor, a communistic implication,” and attempted to have it removed. This effort failed but less than ten years later, around 1942, the mural was covered up.

Old photos show a work in full social-realist style—muscular men swinging hammers (CWA workers posed for the artist) are surrounded by vignettes of marchers threatened with bayonets, looming skyscrapers, and “upraised arms shackled at the wrist.” In one corner is a wheat field that the School Superintendent compared to “those one sees on posters sent out by the soviet republic.” (He subsequently acknowledged that “all wheat fields look pretty much alike whether in the United States or in Russia.”)

The Roosevelt School archives contain a unusually complete record of the controversy that raged during the first few months of 1936. The Mayor and the School Superintendent conferred, temporized, and appointed a committee. The artist, in a rather disingenuous interview, said that the mural was so patriotic that it  “could be found fitting for display in an American Legion hall” and called his critics “stupid and un-American.” The Artist’s Union in Chicago fired off a telegraph protesting against “censorship.” The local Communist Party took offense, claiming that “as communists we disclaim that it has any connection to our aims.” When the Superintendent worried that the mural could make children “riled up and stirred up,” a newspaper interviewed some students and reported that they liked the mural and were “not unduly oppressed” by its subject matter.

The Rosengren mural survived this controversy. In March of 1936 the committee reported that the painting was “fitting and proper,” but recommended  that an explanatory plaque be placed nearby. (Let’s hope that the plaque is recovered along with the mural.) Ten years later, though, it succumbed under circumstances that are not known.

Assistant principal James O’Hagan is leading an effort to document the mural’s history and restore it to view. “Friends of the Roosevelt School Mural” are sharing information through Facebook.

Recovering this emblematic piece of art and with its all-too-emblematic story would be a victory in the effort to keep the legacy of the New Deal alive.