Charlotte Mish

Remembering ‘Forgotten Stories’ of the Great Depression

Salem's Hallie Ford Museum of Art exhibits 70 pieces – many not seen for years -- produced by Northwest artists during the New Deal

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.

Jacob Elshin (born St. Petersburg, Russia, 1892; died Seattle, 1976), “Miners at Work,” (1937-38, oil on canvas, 5 by 12 feet), collection of the City of Renton, Washington, courtesy of U.S. Postal Service. ©2019 USPS. Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art
Jacob Elshin (born St. Petersburg, Russia, 1892; died Seattle, 1976), “Miners at Work,” (1937-38, oil on canvas, 5 by 12 feet), collection of the City of Renton, Washington, courtesy of U.S. Postal Service. ©2019 USPS. Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art

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.

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