UCSF Development Puts Murals at Risk

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter—Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

Ruth Gottstein, the artist’s daughter
Zakheim’s mural at Coit Tower depicts Ruth wearing a sailor suit.

My grandfather, Bernard Zakheim, was a seminal figure in the New Deal art world. He immigrated from Warsaw to New York in 1920, then made his way to San Francisco. 

In the mid-1930s, Bernard coordinated the twenty-five muralists who created frescoes in San Francisco’s landmark Coit Tower. This was the largest of many endeavors sponsored by the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which later became the Federal Art Project (FAP) that employed struggling artists nationwide during the Great Depression.  

The Coit Tower murals, conceptualized by Zakheim, depict various scenes of life in California. Bernard’s fresco, “The Library,” shows a man removing a book by Karl Marx from a shelf. The mural includes an image of the artist’s daughter—my mother, Ruth, as a 12-year-old, wearing a blue-and-white sailor suit. At 97, she still tells the story of when she stood on Market Street with her father and witnessed striking dock workers in the days leading up to the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. The strike inspired some Coit Tower artists to include themes of labor unrest and economic inequity in the murals they painted there.

In 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned Zakheim to paint a series of frescoes at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). The eleven panels in Toland Hall graphically depict the evolution of medicine in California. Among the historical figures are Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assisting Dr. John S. Griffin, one of California’s earliest trained physicians, in the treatment of a malaria patient. 

Zackheim Murals—Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin in the treatment of a malaria patient.

Zakheim Murals at Toland Hall, UCSF
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave who became a nurse, assists Dr. John S. Griffin.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

The colossal undertaking of these Toland Hall murals may soon be undone as plans proceed to tear down the old hospital to make way for a new facility. The potential destruction of these murals comes amid assaults on other New Deal artworks when there is a change to the public spaces they embellish, or when controversy arises regarding their content. For instance, the threatened destruction of “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School by muralist Victor Arnautoff, also a WPA artist at Coit Tower, galvanized San Francisco’s arts community. 

Bernard’s work has been threatened before: with neglect, water damage, political controversy and censorship. As an example, the lower half of a 1930s-era fresco he painted at the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Center in San Francisco was painted over in the 1950s. The fresco was saved six decades later when his son, Nathan Zakheim, expertly removed the paint.

Even the Coit Tower murals, a major city attraction, were neglected for years. Legislation approved by the voters saved the murals and upgraded the building. 

From both an artistic and historical perspective, the Toland Hall murals are irreplaceable. Like many New Deal works, they are a window on the past. Importantly, they are remnants of an era when government exalted and funded the arts. Given this most recent threat, another rescue campaign is underway. As a family, we continue to do all we can to ensure the murals’ survival so that future generations can appreciate and learn from them.

Watch: Tour the Toland Hall murals tour with Dr. Chauncey Leake, 1976 (45 minutes)

 
Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine

Superstitious Medicine and Rational Medicine
WPA artist Bernard Zakheim studied with Diego Rivera, whose influence can been seen in the Toland Hall murals.
Photo Credit: Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

 
Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)

Zakheim Murals
Viewing murals at Toland Hall at UCSF, left to right: F. Stanley Durie, Superintendent of UC Hospital, Dr. William E. Carter, Phyllis Wrightson, Joseph Allen, State Director of WPA Federal Art Project, Bernard Zakheim (ca. 1939)  Source

Zakheim at work, 1937—The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital

Zakheim at work, 1937
The artist at Toland Hall, University of California Hospital
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Adam Gottstein

 

The “Life of Washington” Murals Explained

Click on the images below to enlarge.

 

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Arnautoff at work at GW High School, Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Victor Arnautoff was one of the most prolific artists of the New Deal. Born in Russia in 1896, he served as a Calvary officer in WWI, and later in one of the White armies during the Russian Civil War. He arrived in San Francisco in 1925 to study art. When his student visa expired, he spent two years in Mexico as an assistant to the muralist Diego Rivera. In 1931, Arnautoff and his family returned to San Francisco, where he began to produce buon fresco murals, a technique in which the artist paints on wet plaster. The paint penetrates and becomes part of the wall, making frescoes very difficult to move.

Working for the WPA in 1936, Arnautoff created thirteen fresco murals at George Washington High School. Entitled the “Life of Washington,” the murals cover 1,600 square feet of the walls and ceilings of the school’s entry and main hallway. Arnautoff did extensive research for the murals. He wrote in his memoirs that he wanted to show two things: the life of George Washington and what he called the “spirit of his times.”  He also said, “The artist must be a critic of his society.” Arnautoff, who would soon join the Communist Party, called himself a social realist. He thought his paintings should show realistic people rather than abstract imagery, and felt an obligation to be a social critic.

Mural series, “Life of Washington”
Photo: Richard Evans

The first mural chronologically in Washington’s life is divided by an image of a tree.

Photo: Robert Cherny

On one side of this mural Arnautoff portrays Washington’s early life, including as a surveyor. On the other side he shows the French and Indian War, Washington’s first military experience. 

French Indian War
Photo: Richard Evans

Instead of placing Washington in the middle of this scene, Arnautoff put American Indians in the center, surrounded on all sides by the British, the French, and the American colonials. 

Raising the Flag
Photo: Richard Evans

Here Arnautoff depicted the origins of the American Revolution—the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the burning of the tax stamps. Again, Arnautoff did not put Washington in the center. Washington is in the upper right, arriving to take command of the army. In the middle, Arnautoff painted several working-class men raising the new flag.

Men in Rags Valley Forge
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural depicts the first winter at Valley Forge. The usual depiction of this event is a portrait of Washington praying in the snow. Arnautoff did something quite different. He shows Washington and three members of the Continental Congress warmly dressed in winter clothing and the enlisted men dressed in rags, their feet wrapped in bandages. Washington is pointing out the poor condition of his troops as a way of persuading Congress to give him more financial support. To me, this is Arnautoff’s social commentary on class privilege at the time of the American Revolution.

Mercenary Surrender
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff’s sketches for the mural suggest that this is a Hessian mercenary surrendering at Yorktown. Washington is absent from this mural. It is enlisted troops doing their duty.

Bidding Farewell Officer
Photo: Robert Cherny

This mural shows Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War bidding farewell to his officers, including Lafayette and Von Steuben, perhaps Arnautoff’s way of emphasizing that the American revolutionaries needed assistance from abroad to win their war of independence.

Washington with Hamilton and Jefferson
Photo: Robert Cherny

Opposite that mural, Arnautoff depicted Washington as president, mediating between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the new Constitution.

Alcove Banner
Photo: Robert Cherny

At the entrance to that alcove, Arnautoff put this banner with a quotation from Washington about the importance of educational institutions.

Washington with Mother
Photo: Robert Cherny

In the final alcove, Arnautoff presented two more scenes related to Washington’s presidency. This one shows him bidding farewell to his dying mother. By some accounts, Washington was reluctant to leave her, but she encouraged him to go because of the importance of the work facing him as the first president.

Washington with Children
Photo: Robert Cherny

Arnautoff learned through his research that Washington had tried to create a national university. 

Mount Vernon
Photo: Richard Evans

Now controversial, this mural shows Washington at his Mount Vernon plantation. Once again, Washington is on the margins. Arnautoff put enslaved African Americans at in the center of this mural. This was his comment on the fact— all too often ignored in the 1930s—that the same men who signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring “all men are created equal,” owned other people as property. For Arnautoff this was one of the great contradictions of Washington’s time, and he makes clear in this mural that Washington was dependent on enslaved labor for his wealth. Arnautoff was clearly using his art to provide social criticism.

Pioneer Mural
Photo: Richard Evans

Arnautoff said that, in his research for the mural, he looked for ways to connect Washington to the West. This would have been difficult because at the time the nation ended at the Mississippi River. But he found a reference to Washington making a statement about the significance of the West.

Arnautoff divided this now-controversial mural into three separate stories.   Washington is on the left side, pointing west. In the center, Arnautoff’s social criticism is seen in what the artist called “the march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Arnautoff’s murals are all painted in color, but these westward marching pioneers are shown in a ghastly grey scale—a technique he learned from Diego Rivera. Arnautoff’s pioneers are marching past a dead Indian warrior, his commentary on the settlement of the West.

The third story in this mural is on the right, where a white man and an American Indian chief are sitting down together with a peace pipe. Over their heads, however, is a broken branch, apparently Arnautoff’s way of depicting broken promises and treaties.

For Arnautoff, the “spirit of the times” of early American history involved its greatest injustices: slavery and the killing and dispossession of America’s First People.  

Liberty Ceiling Mural
Photo: Robert Cherny

On the ceiling of the first alcove, Arnautoff placed the moon, a symbol of war, and above the second, a sun and rainbow, symbols for peace. On the ceiling of the third alcove is Liberty putting thirteen new stars onto a blue field. 

Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook, by David W. Gates, Jr.

As a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail some years back, David W. Gates Jr. would stop to pick up the supplies he had mailed to himself at the tiny post offices along the route that were his lifeline during his 6-month, 2,176-mile trek through 14 states. He’s been photographing and writing about post offices ever since.

After penning hundreds of stories for his blog, Gates has published a book about post office murals in Wisconsin commissioned during the New Deal.

Many of the nation’s post offices were constructed between 1934 and 1943 to provide jobs for unemployed workers. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture—later renamed the Section of Fine Arts—held competitions for artists to decorate these and other federal buildings. Many post offices in small towns got murals from the Treasury Relief Art Project. These post office murals often depicted the history, character, and industry of the towns where they were installed.

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s website, the Postal Service is making every effort to preserve this “uniquely American art…and safeguard it for future generations.” But, in fact, the Postal Service is selling off hundreds of historic post offices, many with New Deal artworks. David has been trying to photograph them before they disappear from public view.

The Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook offers the traveler the locations of post offices where the public still has access to the murals (all of which were created with public funds), as well as information about those that have been removed or closed to public view.

The guidebook contains 70 color photographs, the location, and status of these endangered assets. Because many post office murals were not signed, often USPS clerks themselves don’t know the names of the artists or titles of the murals where they work. Gates’ book—soon to be followed by another that explores the subject more deeply—will open their and others’ eyes to an overlooked public treasure.

New Deal Murals Spur Controversy

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Victor Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Hot on the heels of widespread demands to remove Confederate monuments come calls to remove or destroy New Deal works of art believed by some to be racist.

WPA murals in the lobby of San Francisco’s George Washington High School have recently come under fire. Painted by renowned Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff in 1935, one of the mural panels shows Washington with his slaves at Mount Vernon; another depicts Washington pointing pioneers westward over the body of a dead Indian. African Americans and Native Americans have complained to the school district, which has appointed a special committee to decide what to do about the offending art works. Destruction is one serious option.

“Life of Washington”

“Life of Washington”
The murals are painted on 12 panels, measuring 1600 square feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Some New Deal art can be interpreted as demeaning or even racist, but Victor Arnautoff’s daring murals, I believe, fall into a more problematic category. They depict the father of our country as also being the father of a genocide later claimed by the victors as Manifest Destiny. It is a position so contrary to the national mythology of the time that I have often wondered how the artist got away with such criticism in a public space.

Even Arnautoff’s friend and fellow left-winger, Russian artist Anton Refregier, said that he knew what had happened to the California Indians but could only go so far in his great New Deal mural cycle of California history, which he completed in 1947 for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office. Nonetheless, during the McCarthy era conservative Congressmen nearly destroyed Refregier’s murals for showing uncomfortable aspects of American history and for their implicit criticism.

Entrance to George Washington High School

Entrance to George Washington High School
The school was completed by the WPA in 1936
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

That is precisely what Arnautoff was doing in his murals at George Washington High, but his criticism went where Refregier feared to tread. Unlike all the other colorful figures in Arnautoff’s murals, he painted the westward-moving pioneers in ash-grey and armed them with rifles and a pickaxe with which to take the mineral wealth of the fallen Indian who, unlike them, he painted in full color. Arnautoff’s pioneers represent not heroes but a death march. They march to the far right of the painting toward the signing of a treaty that their armed progress will violate, just as so many treaties with Native Americans were broken. Arnautoff is saying that the U.S. was born and grew upon bad faith and over the body of a people that had lived for ages on their land until invaders violently took it from them.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier
This panel depicts the Sir Francis Drake arriving in California. Notice the blood in the tip of Drakes’ sword

Refregier’s Rincon Annex murals were so controversial at the time he painted them that then-Representative Richard Nixon wrote to a constituent in 1949 that “I believe a committee should make a thorough investigation of this type of art in government buildings with the view to obtaining the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.” On May 1, 1953, with Nixon as vice president, that committee met in Washington, D.C. to put on trial not only Refregier’s art but then-popular versions of history as well.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"
This controversial mural depicts the longshoremen’s strike in 1934, when two strikers were killed.  Source

It is because San Franciscans of both parties rose up in defense of the murals, that Refregier’s works narrowly escaped destruction. Today they are regarded as masterpieces of New Deal art. San Francisco schools use them to teach about history and racial diversity, as well as conflict—themes that were hardly popular when Refregier painted them.

Victor Arnautoff, Self-portrait

Victor Arnautoff
Self-portraitWikimedia

Arnautoff’s murals, like Refregier’s, offer such an opportunity to teach the power of art to encourage critical thinking and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Shortly after completing his paintings, Refregier wrote of his fear that “some night, perhaps, men will come with buckets of white paint and it will take very little time to destroy that which took me so long to make. And in the morning it will be just like it was three years ago. White walls without colors, without ideas, ideas that make people so mad and so afraid.”

Uncovering California’s New Deal Art

Catalogue from 1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

Catalogue
1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

A daring exhibition at the University of Santa Clara in 1976 began the rediscovery of a buried civilization then itself only forty years in the past.

“New Deal Art: California,” a six-month exhibition at the De Saisset Gallery, pulled out of storage surviving works of New Deal art while pointing to others long ignored in public spaces: a wealth of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and mosaics whose merit had been buried under the ascendant dominance of modernist abstraction after World War II.

The disinterest or actual contempt with which so much of the Art Establishment regarded the figurative art of the New Deal was not entirely accidental. It had much to do with the deliberate erasure of the New Deal ethos that had produced it, though few at that time were aware of it.

Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco

Coit Tower Mural
Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Much of the credit for the rediscovery of New Deal art belongs to Dr. Francis V. O’Connor who, in 1974, published Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s, written by those who worked for the WPA Federal Art Project, still an essential collection of source material. O’Connor served as a consultant for the De Saisset Gallery exhibition along with curators Lydia Modi Vitale and history professor Steven Gelber, who now lives in retirement in Santa Rosa, California. Gelber remembers the exhibition fondly and well.

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939
Catalogue Number 147

Dr. Gelber recalls today that the artists he interviewed all spoke of the art programs with something akin to love. Government patronage gave them security while enabling them to create art for a broad public rather than wealthy collectors, galleries, and corporate lobbies, as was so often the case when the federal art projects ended.

Two years in the making, the exhibition produced a richly illustrated catalogue containing an extensive inventory of New Deal public artworks throughout California. More important to those now researching New Deal art projects was a unique program of video documentation made possible by an NEH grant that enabled Gelber and Vitale to outfit a van with equipment with which they recorded surviving administrators and artists in their homes and studios. The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. houses those interviews. Through them, those involved in the vast programs of government-sponsored art speak to us today.

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture, San Diego County Administration Building

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture
San Diego County Administtration Bldg

The art reproduced in the museum catalogue and in the February 4, 1976 issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine demonstrates the impressive range of works that emerged through federal patronage.

A cast stone relief on the exterior of the WPA-built Berkeley Community Theatre, for example, depicts people of all races brought together through acts of creation—an ideal that seemed attainable when government actively supported the arts.

Book Review: Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene, pp 170

Ben Shahns New Deal Murals

Ben Shahns New Deal Murals
by Diana Linden, Wayne State University, Reviewed by Gabriel Milner, Ph.D.

A prolific visual artist before, during, and after the New Deal, Ben Shahn’s religion (Judaism), place of birth (Lithuania), and first language (Yiddish), set him apart as a member of “the ‘Hebrew Race,’ a racial assignment both inferior and vastly different from white or Caucasian artists among whom Shahn is positioned today.” This identity, all-important at the time but largely overlooked now, accounted for a sense of history, community, and engagement with the world that Shahn manifested in his innovative and unflinching murals.

Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene, a finalist in the Visual Arts category of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards, examines four works that Shahn completed or envisioned while working for the WPA. Shahn learned fresco painting as an assistant to Diego Rivera in the 1930s and created his own visually powerful style as a muralist for the New Deal Arts Project.  After situating Shahn within early 20th Century New York, the book delves into the conception, creation, and reception of four murals:  “The Jersey Homesteads Mural,” which Shahn painted for a cooperative community of former Jewish garment workers established under the New Deal; the Bronx Central Post Office murals; a mural he proposed for the main St. Louis Post Office; and an easel painting in a Queens post office. Setting them within their national and international contexts, including Jewish agrarian communities in the Soviet Union, the rise of Nazi Germany, and life in Manhattan where Shahn lived and worked, Linden illustrates how the artist layered identities and eras to make America comprehensible to an “in between” people.

For instance, the Jersey Homesteads Mural celebrated American workers while alluding to the promise and disillusionment that the nation held for immigrants fleeing persecution. Linden maintains that it echoes the mass exodus of Eastern European Jews to America and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, calling attention to America’s stringent immigration policies at a time when Jews were fleeing Nazi persecution. In Shahn’s proposed St. Louis mural depicting Missouri’s history, prominent barbed wire suggests “an important tool by which white settlers kept ‘others’ out in order to claim the land for themselves,” as well as the Nazis’ use of “barbed wire as a tool to contain people,” Linden observes.

In Linden’s view, Shahn’s goal was to “spark positive social change.” Her book, bolstered by vibrant reproductions of Shahn’s murals, sketches, and photographs, shows that his view of art was to compel rather than simply commemorate.  Readers interested in Jewish American history, art history, and Depression-era American culture will enjoy this insightful book.

The Lost Artworks of the Civilian Conservation Corps

L to R - B.T. Jones, Park Interpreter, Wally Scherrey, Park Superintendent; Richard Davies, Executive Director Arkansas Parks and Tourism (Davies’ grandfather directed the park’s CCC camp); Kathleen Duxbury; Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter; and Gardner Yeaw.

“Section of the Lodge” and “View From the Lodge” by CCC artist George Gordon Snyder were recently returned to Petit Jean State Park in Morrilton, Ark.
L to R – B.T. Jones, Park Interpreter, Wally Scherrey, Park Superintendent; Richard Davies, Executive Director Arkansas Parks and Tourism (Davies’ grandfather directed the park’s CCC camp); Kathleen Duxbury; Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter; and Gardner Yeaw.Courtesy Kathleen Duxbury

In 2005, thirty years after the death of my father, George Duxbury, his treasured photo albums resurfaced; fragile books containing a photographic record made during his 1938-1941 service in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in New York, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

The location of my father’s first CCC camp, as luck would have it, was three hours away, at Gilbert Lake State Park in the Catskill Mountains—a park created by CCC labor that also had a campground and CCC museum. Believing all my CCC questions would be answered, my husband, Gardner Yeaw, and I loaded our recently purchased 1978 Bluebird Wanderlodge motor home, hooked up our tow vehicle, packed the albums, and set out for Laurens, New York on our maiden voyage.

"Sixteen Tons" passing through Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower National Monument

"Sixteen Tons" passing through Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower National Monument
Kathleen and Gardner have journeyed 80,000-mile (and counting) to discover CCC Artworks.
Photo Credit: Kathleen Duxbury

We were impressed by our first visit to a CCC-planted forest and park, but surprised to learn that the Hartwick CCC camp where my father had lived was long forgotten. It was suggested we visit the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

What began as a quest to learn more about my father and the CCC may have remained at an uncomplicated level had it not been for the discovery of a candid black-and-white photograph of a young artist taken at a New York Adirondack CCC camp.

His name was Hans Held and the chance discovery of his portrait, along with his 28-foot CCC mural we later found displayed at the Adirondack Museum, would dramatically change the focus and direction of our research travels and introduce us to a quiet part of American art history—the CCC art project.

Brandon served with the CCC at Sibley State Park in New London, Minn. Kathleen found this ink drawing, published 1937 in the CCC newspaper, Happy Days. The original has not been located.

“Progress Through the CCC,” by Arthur Brandon
Brandon served with the CCC at Sibley State Park in New London, Minn. Kathleen found this ink drawing, published 1937 in the CCC newspaper, Happy Days. The original has not been located.
Photo Credit: Kathleen Duxbury

Begun under the Public Works of Art program (PWAP) and lasting from 1934–1937, the CCC art program was administered by a special section within the Treasury Department. Some 300 young artists were sent to CCC camps around the country to make a pictorial record of life and work in the Corps, considered the greatest conservation movement in American history. Artists were instructed to send their watercolors, oils, drawings and sculptures to Washington D.C. The Treasury Department allocated the art to various government agencies, federal buildings, including Congressional offices, schools, and CCC camps for display.

Over the years many works were removed to storage and forgotten; others went missing. Some remained in place but lost their provenance as part of the legacy of the CCC.

Fitzgerald served with CCC Co. #935 at Point Defiance State Park, Tacoma, Wash. This watercolor is now part of the FDR Library and Museum collection.

“Sunlight In the Timber,” by Edmund James Fitzgerald, 1935
Fitzgerald served with CCC Co. #935 at Point Defiance State Park, Tacoma, Wash. This watercolor is now part of the FDR Library and Museum collection.Courtesy of FDR Library

Hoping that these artworks might be identified and appreciated by the public has led Gardner and me on an 80,000-mile road trip through the lower 48 states. Our research is focused on creating a readable and accurate record of the program and artists, and tracking down CCC artworks. Happily, circumstances at times have aligned to allow for the proper identification, procurement, recognition, and public display of several pieces.

We are fortunate and extremely grateful to the many archives, museums, universities, libraries, societies, clubs, organizations, other researchers, CCC artists’ families, and many wonderful people who share our appreciation and quest for knowledge of this little known New Deal art program. Our hope is that any and all CCC art will be protected, treasured, and valued for the history it depicts and ultimately be publicly displayed. This would honor what was clearly the original intent when this quiet part of American art history, the CCC art program, was personally approved by President Roosevelt.

Book Review: Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture, 280 pp

Democratic ArtDuring the Great Depression, FDR’s administration allocated $27 million ($469 million in 2015 dollars) to art projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration, putting some forty thousand unemployed artists of all stripes to work. Sharon Ann Musher’s Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture is the first study to bring together the range of works fostered through government patronage (known collectively as Federal One), the relationship between artists and audiences, and the bitter opposition to the program from a welter of critics.

Many perspectives informed artistic production and its support during this era. Musher devotes chapters to four distinct, occasionally overlapping philosophies—art to “inspire,” “enrich,” “promote social and political ideas,” and “encourage healthy and productive activities.” Each examines the political and cultural legacies from which these ideals emerged and provides detailed case studies of how they were implemented and received.

Musher suggests the ways in which art responded to the Depression—how, for instance, the seemingly quaint murals associated with the era imagined a national legacy antithetical to self-interest and economic striving. Often, Federal One art told a story of perseverance as a national inheritance. But it could be more precisely topical, as artists incorporated contemporaneous labor struggles into their work.  And it worked both ways: Art also influenced grassroots politics. Advocates of housing reform, for instance, frequently cited the wildly popular play, One-Third of a Nation, detailing the travails of tenement living.

Musher’s use of oral histories and never-exhibited images reveal oft-ignored limitations of the New Deal’s civic spirit. The very forces that propelled organizers of Federal One projects—especially larger ones, like photography exhibits—also reined them in. In order to maintain funding or appeal to the broadest number of citizens, they often excised images or stories that challenged prevailing views of race and gender.

Often disparaged—whether by art critics who feared that public patronage created mediocrity or by Republicans who denounced the communitarian images in these works—Federal One collapsed by the late 1930s as resources were diverted to the  “Arsenal of Democracy” and Southern Democrats abandoned their party loyalty amid fears of liberal subversion. And yet, much of the art remains. Adorning our post offices, schools, and city halls, it constitutes memento mori of a unique political moment.

Reviewed by: Gabriel Milner, Living New Deal’s Project Manager.

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.

Indians at the Post Office

Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Indian Bear Dance
Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

As communities around the nation protest the dismantling of the U.S. Postal Service and the sell off of historic post offices—some containing New Deal art works—the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian and National Post Office Museum have jointly debuted an online exhibition of post office art depicting Native Americans: Indians at the Post Office: “Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals.”

A research team pouring over photos of the roughly 1,600 post office murals that were sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts in the 1930s found that about a quarter of them depicted Indians. From these, the team selected two-dozen murals that it organized into categories including Treaties, Encounter, Conflict, Evangelization, Indian Lifeways, and The Myth of Extinction.

Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.

Two Eagle Dancers
Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

An essay accompanies each mural detailing its locale, the circumstance of its creation, subject matter, tribal details, artist biography, and more. Largely thanks to papers collected and oral histories conducted by the Archives of American Art, the sometimes subversive intentions of the artists, not obvious to the casual viewer, can now be explained.

Like the lands over which Native Americans and immigrants fought, the team has staked out contested terrain: many New Deal painters hired to adorn the post offices visually reiterated mythologies congenial to those who had won and occupied the land.  But, as a Forward to the exhibition correctly states, the muralists often encountered political minefields, “Artists were constantly reminded by Treasury officials that the communities were their patrons, and they must go to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to save their commission. Needless to say, “everyone” did not include the Indians they so often depicted. With the exception of a few Native artists and others sympathetic to their forcible displacement, history was portrayed by the victors to legitimate their conquest.

Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office

Early Indian Life Analostan Island
Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

‘Indians at the Post Office” suggests other themes yet to be tackled in the continent-spanning gallery of public art created during the Great Depression by the Treasury Section. These could include themes such as local labor and economy, nature, technology, African-Americans, and above all, postal work and service. Since art encompasses fine architecture, such an exhibition should be staged at the National Building Museum only a few blocks from the National Postal Museum. It would provide Americans an opportunity to see what we paid for, and what we are now so rapidly losing.