National New Deal Treasure: The Search For Lost Art

National Public Radio’s Brian Naylor recently offered this terrific – but unsettling – piece about  all the art gone missing from the New Deal era, and the federal government’s effort to recover it.   So if anyone sees a suspicious tag at an antique shop….!

New Deal Treasure: Government Searches For Long-Lost Art


John Sloan's Fourteenth Street at Sixth AvenueAt the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted a raft of New Deal programs aimed at giving jobs to millions of unemployed Americans; programs for construction workers and farmers — and programs for writers and artists.

“Paintings and sculpture were produced, murals were produced and literally thousands of prints,” says Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The GSA recovered Anne Fletcher’sIris Garden after its then-owner watched an episode of PBS’sAntiques Roadshow and realized the painting was actually a WPA piece.

Courtesy of the U.S. GSA Fine Arts Program

In all, hundreds of thousands of works were produced by as many as 10,000 artists. But in the decades since, many of those works have gone missing — lost or stolen, they’re now scattered across the country.

A Transformative Time For American Artists

The biggest New Deal art program was the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Artists could earn up to $42 a week, as long as they produced something.

Mecklenburg says it was a transformative time for the artists: “The idea for an artist to be able to work through a problem, to work through ideas, you know, that’s golden. So it was a very special moment, and one that really has not ever been repeated.”

To qualify for the work, however, you had to prove yourself as an artist and you had to show you were poor. Mecklenburg spoke to two brothers-in-law who were in the program.

She says, “One of them was saying, you know, you had to prove you were penniless — he said it hurt your dignity. And the other one was so cavalier and devil-may-care about it. He said: Oh, you know, if you thought the relief worker was coming to check out if you had an iron, or anything else that looked like it was of value, you just ran it over to the neighbor’s apartment so it looked like you didn’t have any possessions at all. It’s about as human a story as we’ve ever come up with in the art world.”

The GSA’s Brian Miller holds Andrew Winter’s Gulls at Monhegan(click here for a closer look). The painting will be sent to the U.S. Embassy in Croatia as part of the State Department’s Art in Embassies program.

Brian Naylor/NPR

Every Recovered Painting Has A Story

Some of the art became famous — such as the murals painted in post offices and other public buildings across the country — but in the 80 years since the New Deal art programs began, many of the works have disappeared.

The General Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of government buildings, has a program to recover the lost art, which remains government property. GSA Inspector General Brian Miller says every recovered painting has a story.

Take, for instance, the seascape Gulls at Monhegan,painted by Maine artist Andrew Winter. “It hung in the [American] embassy in Costa Rica for years,” Miller says. “And the ambassador loved it so much that when he left, his staff gave it to him as kind of an unofficial gift. And so it remained in his family and then his granddaughter eventually tried to sell it up in Portland, Maine.”

John Sloan’s New York City street scene, Fourteenth Street at Sixth Avenue, was also recovered by the GSA. It had hung in a U.S. senator’s office and apparently went home with a staffer after that senator’s death.

“It’s a busy street and there’s I guess an [elevated train] that goes over top, and a bustling street with people walking and cars parked and people in all sorts of dress,” Miller says. “And this really captures life in New York City”

The painting — appraised at $750,000 — was recovered in 2003 and is now on loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Other pieces have been found at yard sales, antique malls and on eBay. Many are identifiable by tags that say “Federal Arts Program” or “Treasury Department Art Project.”

Miller, who is stepping down from his post at the GSA at the end of the week, says the government wants to preserve these scenes of America.

“There are just hundreds of portraits of what American life was like in the ’30s and ’40s,” he says, “and it really captures a piece of America and we want to put it up for America to see.”

The GSA has recovered more than 200 works of art so far, and it’s looking for leads on the rest.

The original article can be found here, along with a video version 

Mark Twain Called For “A New Deal”

720-Mark Twain_biographyWe were recently alerted to this interesting fact about the origin of the name “The New Deal”.  It seems that it came from Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee:

On this day in labor history, March 22, 1886, Mark Twain gave a rousing speech in praise of the Knights of Labor at the Monday Evening Club in Hartford, Conn. Twain was a lifelong member of the International Typographical Union (now part of the Communications Workers of America) and a champion of unions. In his book ‘Life on the Mississippi,’ he praised the steamboat pilots’ clever tactics in forming their union and winning their wage demands from the owners. In ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,’ he derided the Gilded Age era’s exploitation of workers and called for ‘a new deal.’ Parts of the book were required reading at union meetings and picnics. Eleanor Roosevelt said it was her husband’s favorite book by Twain.

Since our country appears to have returned to the values and inequality of the Gilded Age in which Twain wrote, perhaps the idea of  ‘a New Deal’ might once again resonate with Americans.

Revisiting The Election of 1936

Harvey Smith recently dug up a copy of the Democratic Party platform from the campaign of the 1936, the guideline for Franklin Roosevelt’s record-breaking run for re-election.  It is an eye-opener to consider the what FDR’s team hoped to accomplish and the pledges to serve the greater good of the nation by the New Deal team.  We can only wish that such visionaries were at the helm of the Democratic Party today!


1936 Dem Platform 2

1936 Dem Platform 3

1936 Dem Platform 4



The Great Recession is Not Just a Memory

Unemployment-Rate-2013The government and the news media would like us to believe that the recession triggered by the financial crisis of 2008 is behind us and the economy is up and running at a fine clip.  But the reality is not so bright.  The recovery has been the worst from any recession in memory, unemployment is still unacceptably high, and inequality is only getting worse.  This grim picture was recently outlined by Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, who notes:

” US output is now seven years – 14% – below the level that was reasonably expected back in 2007. And there is nothing on the horizon that would return the US economy to – or even near – its growth paths before the 2008 financial crisis erupted….The US economy’s annual per capita underperformance in 2014 will thus amount to $9,000.  That means $9,000 per person in consumer durables not purchased, vacations not taken, investments not made, and so forth. By the end of 2014, the cumulative per capita waste from the crisis and its aftermath will total roughly $60,000.”

By contrast, the New Deal-led recovery from the depths of the Great Depression zipped upward at close to 10% per year except for the recession year of 1937 — after FDR mistakenly tried to re-balance the federal budget – and by 1940 returned to the size it would have been (the long-term growth path) without the Great Depression. The big difference today?  Austerity policies.  President Obama tried to stimulate the economy with the ARRA spending package of 2009-10, but it was far from enough.  Since then, the Republicans have insisted on curbing government expenditures, including the notorious Sequester.  This is exactly the wrong policy in a Great Recession!

The only consolation, as Prof. DeLong says, is that Europe’s recovery has been even worse — and that’s because the Germans have demanded austerity PLUS tight monetary policy, whereas the US Federal Reserve Bank has spent trillions pumping us the dollar supply.  Unfortunately, most of that has gone through the banks, not through the wallets of the people.

Why are we being told that everything is hunky-dory?  Because the stock market has had a banner year and the richest 10% of Americans are doing very well, thank you. There’s no crisis at the top, as DeLong points out.  Meanwhile, unemployment remains at recession levels (over 7% nationally and much worse in many parts of the country).  Moreover, if ‘discouraged’ workers are taken into account (those who are no longer seeking work because of the lousy labor market), unemployment is still in double-digit territory.  Tens of millions of Americans are hurting and the federal government is sicking on its hands.  Where’s a New New Deal when we need it?

Here is the full text of Prof. DeLong’s commentary from Nation of Change news feed.   DeLong-The Strange Case of US Inequality 2013


Bethesda Post Office Mural Saved

Bethesda PO mural by Robert Gates, 1938
Bethesda PO mural by Robert Gates, 1938

The old Bethesda Post Office, built by the WPA in 1938, was recently closed and sold to a private developer – a story that is all too common today (see Save the Post Office). But the prominent mural by Robert Gates, who later became head of the Art Department at American University, has been saved.  After sitting in storage for the last year and a half, it has been restored and will soon be installed in the county Regional Services Center for Bethesda and Chevy Chase, Maryland.  The mural portrays the Bethesda Farm Women Market, created in 1932, and a farm supplying the market.  For the story, see the Bethesda Now website.  One correction, however, is that while the old Bethesda Post Office building is of WPA provenance, the mural would surely have been paid for by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts project.

“The Cost of Doing Nothing”

Stephen Seufert, a recent college graduate and blogger in Pennsylvania, has sent us this excellent op-ed piece he recently published in a local paper, The Bucks County Courier-Times.  Thank you, Stephen, and we hope that more young Americans come to think like you about the need for positive government action to invest in this country and its host of unemployed people left over from the Great Recession.

Stephen Seufert                                                                 Saturday, November 9, 2013


Teddy Roosevelt on the stumpIn any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.Theodore Roosevelt

The October jobs report by the Labor Department shows unemployment rising to 7.3 percent. However, that doesn’t account for those who stopped looking for work or are underemployed. Not factored in unemployment numbers is the over 300,000 people who stopped looking for work in the last month alone. Add to that the Labor Department’s “alternative measures of labor underutilization,” which stands at 13.6 percent and you find a crippled workforce.

According to numbers from the Department of Labor, 8.7 million jobs were lost during the Great Recession, which lasted from February 2008 to February 2010. Since 2010, about 7.2 million jobs have been added. Unfortunately, many of the jobs created were seasonal or part time.

Closing the shortfall in jobs will take years, if not decades, to reach pre-recession levels, and even then economic growth will be weak. This much is clear: Maintaining the status quo is essentially the same as doing nothing.

In order to combat sluggish economic growth, there needs to be a coordinated jobs bill that focuses on certain sectors, such as construction and engineering. There are over 697,000 construction workers currently unemployed. The prevailing mindset is there’s not enough work to go around. That simply isn’t true. The real reason for unemployment is a void of vision and foresight by policymakers to properly utilize those construction workers. Few in Washington have the courage of conviction to consistently promote a national jobs bill geared towards infrastructure.

A centralized, coordinated plan of action must be formulated when it comes to infrastructure and job creation. In my view, bringing back FDR’s Works Progress Administration would restore confidence in the American worker, rebuild aging infrastructure, and propel the economy into sustained growth and prosperity.

The WPA of the New Deal improved infrastructure, assisted in disaster relief, and provided valuable logistical experience to military officers before entry into World War II.

Under the Constitution, the government has a responsibility to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the nation. The common defense is fairly straightforward. Unfortunately, over the last few decades, common defense has meant the United States intervenes militarily overseas rather than protecting citizens.

Just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. These countries remain hopelessly unstable and violent despite massive financial, material and physical investments by the United States.

Conservative estimates for the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are around $1.4 trillion. However, that figure doesn’t include health care costs for veterans and interest on war debt. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it will require $3.6 trillion in funds by 2020 to keep up with the nation’s aging infrastructure. Resources used to wage war would’ve gone a long way towards meeting that goal.

In short, the general welfare has been neglected and the common defense hijacked in order to benefit the few instead of the many. New policies must be advocated that restores a measure of balance and fairness.

This much is clear, the cost of doing nothing will only add to slow economic growth and cause financial markets to continue to doubt the vitality and strength of the United States. Furthermore, job creation must take priority over balancing the budget. Spending cuts equal job loss and hiring freezes; not just in the public sector but in the private sector. The government shutdown made that truth abundantly clear. Only when the economy is healthy should there be a focus on balancing the budget.

Investing in the American people is the surest bet moving forward. The national discussion shouldn’t be about how much the nation spends, but rather if that spending promotes the common defense and general welfare of the nation. In the final analysis, doing nothing is an admission of failed, incompetent leadership.

Far too many policymakers are afraid to do the wrong thing and end up doing nothing instead. What ensues is government gridlock and delay, which in turn depresses economic conditions for the middle class and poor. That being said, when will the nation stand up and demand decisive action?

A pdf of this piece can be downloaded here: The Cost of Doing Nothing-Seufert 

The Fight to Save Eugene’s Civic Stadium

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 1.48.11 PMFriends of Civic Stadium in Eugene, Oregon, are trying to raise $1.2 million by mid-January to do repair and maintenance on the stadium, built 75 years ago by the WPA. By raising the money, they hope to persuade the Eugene City Council to purchase the stadium from its current owner, The Eugene School District.
The School District was accepting bids on the property until Dec 3rd, but has extended the deadline into January. Two bidders, Fred Meyer (the store chain) and the YMCA want to tear the stadium down. They hope the city will submit a competing bid in order to maintain the stadium as a venue for soccer and various other events.
So far, they’ve raised $180,000 in just two weeks. Below are two links to help explain our story. The first is a video on The Archaeology Channel, and the Civic Stadium story is the first segment.
Here is a link to the Friends of Civic Stadium website, which provides directions on how people can download a form to donate to our fundraiser.
We’re also on Facebook at Friends of Civic Stadium.
Report sent by Dana Magliari, Eugene <[email protected]>

New Book Recovers the WPA History of African-Americans in Illinois

The Negro in Illinois-Book Cover“Brian Dolinar’s new book, The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers, was released this summer, and if the title sounds dated it’s because the book began its long road to publication in the late 1930s but was sidelined by two formidable obstacles — World War II and a rejection letter.

How Dolinar came to complete the book is a story of a nearly decade-long effort to do justice to work started by a team of more than 100 African-American writers hired to document black life and history for one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration programs.

To recreate the manuscript, Dolinar searched for missing chapters across several states and painstakingly sifted through more than 10,000 pages of documents typed on cheap paper that at one point had been disintegrating….”

To read the rest of this story in The Chicago Tribune, click here.

America’s Crumbling Infrastructure

Yet again we are reminded that the United States has not invested enough in maintaining and expanding the national infrastructure since the New Deal/Postwar Era. As a result, bridges collapse, sewage systems overflow, and parks go to seed, among other things. This opinion piece from the New York Times from fall 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, makes the case in strong terms.  There have been several waves of investment in new infrastructure in American history, each one helping to leverage a period of expansion and prosperity: the Canal Era, the Railroad booms (2 or 3, in fact), the Progressive era in the cities, and the New Deal/Postwar era. Our current political class have forgotten how vital such national investment is, and it is part of the purpose of the Living New Deal to remind them by showcasing the brilliant legacy of New Deal public works, both functional and, in many cases, beautiful.

Living New Deal Helps Unveil History App in SF

The Living New Deal was well represented at the July 31st public launch of “Let’s Get Lost”,  a new smartphone app created by public broadcaster KQED-FM in San Francisco in partnership with the Living New Deal and California Historical Society (and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities).  The new application allows users to identify and hear experts talk about historic sites around the city, and the first sites covered are the New Deal murals at Coit Tower, Rincon Annex (a former Post Office), and City College of San Francisco.  Gray Brechin and Harvey Smith are featured experts on the app, and they reprised some of their knowledge  with a tour of the magnificent Rincon Annex murals by Anton Refregier (the last murals in the United States painted under the auspices of the New Deal).  The event attracted over a hundred people, including Living New Deal advisory board members Jan Roosevelt Katten and John Roosevelt Boettiger.

To find the app “Let’s Get Lost” click here.