Government Website Highlights New Deal Art

Maintained as a part of our national and cultural heritage, the GSA Fine Arts Collection is one of our nation’s oldest and largest public art collections. Some of the collection can be viewed online.

A revamped Fine Arts Collection website recently unveiled by the US General Services Administration (GSA) is a bonanza for anyone interested in public art and especially those who love the art of the New Deal. While still a work in progress, the site’s detailed data, cross links and color photographs make it a pleasure to browse and search.  

By far the largest section of the new website site is “New Deal Art 1933-1943.” Unlike Living New Deal’s website, the GSA’s site is not attempting a comprehensive survey of public artworks commissioned under New Deal art projects. Rather, it focuses mainly on easel paintings and works on paper on long-term loan to non-government facilities.

A few New Deal murals are currently included in the GSA’s online catalogue, including Phillip Guston’s, Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family, 1943,
at the Wilbur J. Cohen Building, Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Photography.

New Deal agencies that employed artists routinely offered paintings and drawings to museums, schools, libraries, and other civic and nonprofit institutions. Recordkeeping was spotty at best. Over the decades the government lost track of most of the collection as pieces were moved, borrowed, stolen, sold, put into storage and often forgotten.

GSA, set up in 1949 to manage federal properties and contracts for government agencies, seems to have realized in the 1970s that these were important works of art. Their belated efforts to inventory these works required starting almost from scratch. To date, over 20,000 artworks have been located. There is still a long way to go. Of the New Deal artworks in the online catalogue, only about 20 percent include photographs. (GSA says it is hoping to eventually have a photo for each one.) Only a few murals and sculptures are included; GSA’s responsibility for murals and other “fixed-in-place” New Deal art is unclear and inconsistent.

Celtic Illuminations,1933-34, by Theodora Harrison at the Seattle Ar t Museum

Celtic Illuminations,1933-34, by Theodora Harrison at the Seattle Art Museum
In addition to artworks at federal buildings, the GSA’s website describes more than 20,000 New Deal artworks on long-term loan to museums and other nonprofit institutions.

Yet, the hundreds of photographs already on display online reveal a remarkable range of subjects, styles and quality. There is a series of “Celtic Illuminations;” a lithograph of Amish children ice skating; an abstract study of a twirling ballerina; a Berenice Abbott photograph of Manhattan’s “Billy’s Bar and Restaurant;” and beautiful watercolors of Native American basketry and jars. There are many of scenes of city life, workers on the job, farms, slums, ships, deserts and some uncategorizable curiosities.

The GSA’s Fine Arts Collection website shows the range of styles and media New Deal artists employed.

Clicking on a thumbnail provides an enlarged photograph along with the year, medium, dimensions, artist’s name and the artwork’s location. This last bit of data proves the real value of GSA’s efforts. Much New Deal art disappeared into the storage vaults of museums to which it was allocated. For example, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reportedly received 875 pieces—photographs, paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures—of which only a small number has ever been displayed.

Sculpture, Family Group by Emma Lou Davis, 1941, Wilbur J. Cohen Building, Washington, DC. The GSA online art catalogue is searchable by artist or artwork. Some descriptions of artworks in the collection include links to videos.

GSA says it “continues to work with the museum community to develop cooperative agreements for the future care of…these important works of art.” Admirers of New Deal art hope that this will encourage more local “repositories” to exhume and exhibit the New Deal artworks entrusted to them.  

If your institution houses New Deal works of art or you would like more information, send the request to:

Fine Arts Program
Office of the Chief Architect
U.S. General Services Administration
1800 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20405
[email protected]

Barbara Bernstein founded the online New Deal Art Registry and is now the Public Art Specialist at the Living New Deal Project.

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.

Barbara Bernstein founded the online New Deal Art Registry and is now the Public Art Specialist at the Living New Deal Project.