In late March 2020, after it became clear COVID-19 represented a devastating blow to the U.S. economy, the National Endowment for the Arts announced it would distribute $75 million in relief to nonprofit arts organizations around the country.
Every little bit counts, of course. But a look at what happened in the 1930s when the Great Depression hit reveals what a paltry figure (and lack of enthusiasm for investing in culture) this represented. President Roosevelt’s New Deal ignited a massive program of federal arts patronage, amounting to more than $515 million in today’s dollars that was paid directly to artists.
Thousands of artists immediately went to work producing paintings and sculptures for schools and universities, hospitals, post offices, and other public buildings. Artists found themselves in an invigorating new cultural paradigm. No longer reliant on the patronage of a few wealthy benefactors, they could make a living producing artistic work that would be seen by millions of Americans going about their daily lives, many of whom had possibly never been exposed to high quality artwork.
Federally subsidized visual art (along with plays, art centers, and concerts) flourished until 1941 when the U.S. entered World War II. The ending was abrupt, with projects shut down overnight. In the ensuing chaos, records were lost and even much of the artwork itself went missing, and in the postwar years, New Deal art in the Pacific Northwest was largely forgotten.
Thanks to years of research led by Margaret Bullock, chief curator at the Tacoma Art Museum, there’s now an opportunity to remember. A major exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem unveils an impressive overview of the Northwest’s New Deal artistic bounty. Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art in the 1930s, featuring nearly 70 artworks created in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, is open to the public through March 27 in the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery and the Maribeth Collins Lobby.
That’s a narrow window, and COVID bears the blame. The exhibition has had unnaturally bad luck in that regard. It opened in Tacoma on Feb. 22, 2020, only to be shut down a couple of weeks later. It opened in Salem Nov. 28 just as Oregon headed into another shutdown. So it has largely remained behind closed doors, at risk of being forgotten again.
Fortunately, even for those who aren’t able or ready yet to get out, a wealth of material is online. A virtual tour is available, and several hours of video may be watched free of charge, including the lecture series that was scheduled for January. It’s best to begin with the curator: Bullock opens the series with Wonders, Blunders, and Everything in Between: The New Deal Art Projects in the Northwest. Willamette University faculty members deliver subsequent lectures on the Great Depression and the cultural, political, and technological trends of the day.
Also, a self-guided film series curated by artist and film historian Robert Bibler is available in a number of streaming options, available at a small cost. They include My Man Godfrey, Our Daily Bread, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and that quintessential entry in the canon of Great Depression cinema, The Grapes of Wrath.
The exhibition provides a snapshot of American history at a moment when individuals at the highest levels of government recognized that art and culture mattered, not simply as an aesthetic imperative, but as a means of putting people to work. That said, it also was not lost on officials that working people at the end of their rope might rebel and become radicalized.
“We are fortunate to be able to exhibit a number of works that have not been seen since their creation and also to borrow several large-scale murals that normally never leave their permanent locations in schools and post offices,” Bullock noted in a press packet. “For our region, this exhibition is a celebration of a time when government support for art and the artists not only nurtured talent but made long-lasting impacts on the art community and raised the importance of public art in a way that has yet to be matched.”
Although falling under the broad category of “New Deal” public art, the means by which money was funneled to artists actually came through four individual programs administered by the Works Progress Administration and other federal agencies.
The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was first out of the gate with a budget of $1 million in December 1933, and in just a few months illustrated what could be accomplished. In Oregon, the PWAP put 128 artists to work, 40 percent of them women — considerably more than the national average of 16 percent for the same program. Largely concentrated in the Portland area, they were paid anywhere from $26 to $42 a week ($506 to $800 in 2021 dollars) to produce artwork. It is estimated that 350 to 400 pieces of art (oils, watercolors, sculpture, woodcarving, and other media) were created in just a few months.
The most personal expression of what New Deal arts spending meant for artists may be found in letters they wrote to the PWAP, expressing their gratitude.
Though her work does not appear in the exhibition, Oregon artist Rachael Griffin — who would go on to a 17-year career as curator at the Portland Art Museum — was among recipients whose letter is quoted in the exhibition catalog, New Deal Art in the Northwest: The WPA and Beyond. After noting that the project had financially helped artists in “these bad times” and given impetus to public interest in art, Griffin wrote, “I feel, however, that the greatest value of the Public Works of Art Project lies in the fact that each painter may feel that his work has a use, a meaning which relates to the life of the community in which he lives, that his painting has a real place, serves a real purpose as in the past great periods of art.”
The New Deal art aesthetic arguably didn’t rise to Mao Zedong Cultural Revolution levels of government propaganda, but it was decidedly conservative. As officials rolled out the PWAP, they advised artists to focus on “the American scene.” That sensibility is exemplified in many of the works at the Hallie Ford, perhaps none so spectacularly as one of the largest. Jacob Elshin’s Miners at Work is a 12-by-5-foot coil on canvas that otherwise would be on display in the Renton Post Office in Washington. It gives some sense of how this dangerous and grueling work was done in the 1930s (shoveling coal into a mule-drawn cart with no safety equipment in sight) but it is also romanticized. The underground scene is relatively well lit, and there’s nary a smudge of coal to be seen on any of the muscular men’s shirts.
Another telling of Pacific Northwest history may be enjoyed in an altogether different work that is normally housed in the Oregon State Library, which has been closed to the public since before the pandemic. Charlotte Mish’s Map of Oregon Flora, a tempera on canvas, depicts Oregon spackled with dozens of native plants — mostly. To the artist’s credit, both Scotch broom and the noon flower are labeled as “introduced” to the ecosystem.
To the extent that New Deal public art in the Pacific Northwest had a regional flavor (pastoral farms, markets, industrious Men at Work, etc.) it must be noted that Indigenous people were largely left out of this sunny picture.
It wasn’t a total erasure. The 240-page catalog goes into this problem in some detail. “The Treasury’s approach at times silenced alternative voices,” Sharon Ann Musher, a professor of history at Stockton University in New Jersey, writes. “For instance, although 400 of the 1,600 murals the Treasury commissioned illustrated Native Americans, only 24 of them were created by Indigenous artists.” Although there were exceptions, she continued, many of the federally commissioned images “represented westward expansion as an idyllic myth rather than showing the violence, food shortages, epidemics and land sales that more accurately reflected such contact.”
American Regionalism and New Deal public art go hand-in-hand, but the visual artwork produced under the auspices of the four big federal programs — the PWAP, the Treasury Relief Art Project, the Section of Painting and Sculpture and, most famously, the Federal Art Project — did not occur in an artistic vacuum.
Another catalog essayist, Hallie Ford’s senior faculty curator and professor emeritus of art history, Roger Hull, spells out the New Deal art mission. “Created under the very particular, defining circumstances of a national emergency,” he writes, “New Deal art initiatives were designed to meet several goals: provide work for artists; offer aesthetic solace for Americans demoralized by economic disaster; and set forth a vision of American life, present and past, that emphasized the nation’s strengths, only temporarily disabled.”
Artists generally obliged those parameters — it was, after all, the directive from their employer — but they were also part of an artistic universe that was gravitating toward the avant-garde. The year after the stock market crashed, André Breton in France published his second Manifesto of Surrealism. Artists everywhere, including those collecting paychecks from the U.S. government, found themselves tempted by those European currents, and the results may be found — albeit in smaller numbers — in the Salem show.
The show includes a couple of pieces by Seattle-born Malcolm Roberts, quite obviously smitten with Salvador Dali, including his 1937 lithograph on paper, Lunar Landscape. Oddly, there’s nothing obviously “lunar” about the image; the three figures huddled in the background to the left of a warped wall with bare branches creeping around it might as well be sitting in the Sahara, and what appears to be a full moon can be glimpsed through a passing cloud. Another lithograph, Sarcasm, depicts what appears to be two women dancing, their bodies unnaturally long, crossed at an odd angle.
All this and much more may be seen at the Hallie Ford this month. Timed entry tickets are required and may be purchased online. Museum hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Also, Forgotten Stories isn’t the only exhibit in town. Upstairs, visitors will find Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts Biennial: Part I, a series of prints that will be on display through April 24, and Gold of the Caliphs: Medieval Islamic Coins from the Gary Leiser Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, which runs through Aug. 14.
Copies of the exhibition catalog, published by the University of Washington in association with the Tacoma Art Museum, are for sale in the lobby. It includes nearly 200 illustrations and features commentary by Bullock and nine other scholars.