Defending New Deal Public Art

The New Deal commissioned more than 10,000 artworks, including 1,200 murals in post offices. Many are endangered by neglect, privatization and challenges to problematic images.  At least 16 murals in 12 states have recently been covered or removed by the US Postal Service (see the report by LND team member Evan Kalish).
We have developed recommendations for dealing with such controversies in a new Endangered Art  section of our website. It contains briefs on why New Deal art is important, racism in art, and practical advice for defending art, and it includes a growing list of imperiled New Deal works.
A recent example is the controversy over “Incidents in the History of Catonsville” by Avery Johnson. The post office mural depicting enslaved Black people pulling barrels of tobacco was hidden behind plastic sheeting last summer. Yet, Johnson seems to have intended an honest portrayal of local history with slave labor at the heart of the image, as described in an 1865 account of “the old method of getting tobacco to market,” found by Living New Deal Associate Will Cook.
This is an example of how controversial murals can have historical value and a point of view that offer opportunities for dialogue and education, as the Washington Post reports.  Such artworks must be defended against hasty, naïve and ahistorical attacks and should be debated and put to the larger community to decide on the artworks’ fate.
Our goal is to create a nationwide network of experts, preservationists and citizens to defend New Deal public art. If you are able to help fund this effort, contact Kurt Feichtmeir.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.