Gordena Jackson, Southwest basketfrom the Index of American Design
The National Gallery of Art on the mall is one of America’s greatest art museums. It holds thousands of New Deal artworks in its vast collections, much of it available in digital form and occasional shown in exhibits.
By far the largest New Deal collection at the National Gallery is the Federal Art Project’s (FAP) Index of American Design, containing over 18,000 artistic renderings (chiefly watercolors) of historic and contemporary American arts and crafts: textiles, furniture, toys, decorative arts, industrial products, and so on.
The FAP was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1935 to 1942. This collection was part of the WPA’s overall program of documenting folk art, crafts and music (and the companion Federal Security Administration’s photographic record of rural life during the Great Depression).
As the culmination of the American Design project, watercolor renderings of the artworks were meant to be organized by subject, published in portfolios, and widely disseminated. More than fifty contemporary exhibitions of these works appeared in museums, department stores, and Federal Art Centers around the country. As the world war commenced and the FAP closed down, the collection was passed to the newly-created National Gallery of Art.
The following National Gallery links will help you understand and navigate their collection: “Index of American Design” (a summary of the WPA project); “Surveys of American Crafts and Folk Arts from the Index of American Design” (slideshows of selected artworks, by topic); and this search result link.
The WPA’s final report counts 22,000 objects in the Index of American Design, and it is unclear if that was a miscount or all the artworks made it to the National Galley. There appears to be only one New Deal artwork from other programs, based on searches under Public Works of Art Project and Treasury Section of Fine Arts.
The National Galley does present occasional exhibits involving these New Deal artworks, as, e.g., https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/1984/index.html.
The National Gallery of Art itself was created by a private donation to the federal government by Andrew Mellon, former Secretary of the Treasury, in 1937. On his birthday, 24 March 1937, Congress formally accepted the collection and funds for the gallery building and approved the construction of a museum on the National Mall.
The building was designed by architect John Russell Pope and accepted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on behalf of the American people on March 17, 1941. Neither Mellon nor Pope lived to see the museum completed.
Hornung, Clarence, Treasury of American Design. New York, 1970.
Project originally submitted by Richard Walker on May 10, 2020.
Additional contributions by Brent McKee.
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