(called Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, 1934-1938)
The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture was created on October 16, 1934, by order of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. . In 1938, the program was renamed “Section of Fine Arts” . Its purpose was “to secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test” , for the decoration of federally-owned structures such as the U.S. Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., and hundreds of post offices around the country.
The Section of Fine Arts recruited American artists through a system of anonymous competition. Bulletins announcing competitions were mailed out to artists who had requested to be placed on the Section’s mailing list, and the artists were given time “to study the problem and to prepare designs that are appropriate to the locality of the building and the tastes and interests of the public who will use that building.” Artists were “encouraged to visit the community and discuss subject matter with leading citizens” . There was a requirement that artists have “experience and thorough professional equipment” and “beginners, art students, or others who are not professional painters or sculptors” were discouraged from competing . However, not all of the Section’s art projects required competitions. Artists whose work was considered “exceptional” were sometimes “invited by the Section to submit designs for the decoration of a specific building without further competition” . Financial need played no role in the selection process.
Artwork solicited by the Section of Fine Arts could not exceed 1% of the construction cost of the building to be decorated, and pay to artists ranged “from $600 to $1,000 for work that may take up to a year” (about $10,000 to $17,000 in 2014 dollars) . By December 1942, near the end of the program, the Section had spent about $1.8 million on 1,047 murals and 268 sculptures (about $30 million in 2014 dollars) .
One project of the Section of Fine Arts placed artists in Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps to create paintings of CCC work and life, and to make safety posters, decorate camp buildings, participate in education programs, and more. The Section also organized travelling exhibitions and provided sculptures for the 1939 New York World’s Fair .
As part of the executive branch reorganization that occurred in 1939, the Section of Fine Arts was transferred from the U.S. Treasury to the newly-created Public Buildings Administration, a component of the Federal Works Agency, effective July 1, 1939 . The chief administrator of the Section over most of its existence was Edward Bruce.
World War II brought the Section of Fine Arts to a quick end. Most new work ended in fiscal year 1942  and it was terminated completely on July 15, 1943 . Many of the Section’s artworks can still be seen in public buildings today. Yet, as two New Deal scholars recently noted, “many people who see them may have no knowledge of the history that produced them” . Even sadder, many such works are out of public view, in buildings sold to private developers, or have been lost during building restorations or demolitions.
Sources: (1) Sources vary for the Section’s creation date and for its method of creation. Dates range from October 13 through 16, and the means of creation is sometimes called an “executive order” and at other times an “administrative order.” For our date, we rely on two sources: (a) Treasury Department, Section of Painting and Sculpture, Bulletin No. 7, December 1935, p. 2. In this bulletin it is stated that “on October 16, 1934, the Honorable Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury issued his executive order creating the Section of Painting and Sculpture…” (b) Final Report, Section of Fine Arts, Public Buildings Administration, October 16, 1934 to July 15, 1943. (2) Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, fiscal year 1939, p. 191. (3) Treasury Department, Section of Painting and Sculpture, Bulletin No. 7, December 1935, p. 2. (4) First Annual Report, Federal Works Agency, 1940, p. 91. (5) Treasury Department, Section of Painting and Sculpture, Bulletin No. 5, September 1935, p. 6. (6) See note 4. (7) Final Report, Section of Fine Arts, Public Buildings Administration, October 16, 1934 to July 15, 1943, introductory section. Also see note 4. (8) See note 4 at p. 92. (9) See note 7. (10) See, e.g., Annual reports of the Secretary of the Treasury, fiscal years 1935-1939, and annual reports of the Federal Works Agency, fiscal years 1940-41. (11) See, e.g., Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, fiscal year 1940, p. 381. (12) Third Annual Report, Federal Works Agency, 1942, p. 33. (13) See note 7 at p. 1. (14) Sheila D. Collins and Naomi Rosenblum, “The Democratization of Culture: The Legacy of the New Deal Art Programs,” 2014. In Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg (Ed.), When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 210. (Note: annual reports of the Federal Works Agency and the Secretary of the Treasury can be found at https://www.hathitrust.org/ and/or https://archive.org/index.php.)