Under various economic-recovery programs of the New Deal,his administration created the Public Works of Art Project,a program that brought unemployed artists back to producing artworks in the United States.
“It kind of restored hope for these people that the government hadn't given up on them. They were hired at laborers' wages,but they were part of something bigger,” said George Gurney,deputy chief curator of the exhibit “1934: A New Deal for Artists.”
The collection of 56 paintings will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until Jan. 3. It will then begin a three-year national tour.
The artists who participated in the PWAP were asked to portray the scenes in American life,although artists had great latitude. “There are paintings that are imaginative in the way in which they are put together,” Gurney said.
Alice Dineen's “Black Panther” is a perfect example. A native New Yorker,she used her study of animals at the Bronx Zoo and tropical plants at the Botanical Garden to create a painting of that exotic black cat surrounded by luscious vegetation.
“It is a beautiful kind of fantasy,and people needed fantasies back then,beautiful fantasies,to get their minds off the thing,” Gurney said.
It was a time when hope needed to be restored. But not all artists used scenes of nature to convey their sentiments.
“Some people took the idea of painting the American scene as what is the most important thing going on around my community?” Gurney said. “So you get the idea of an iron ore mine in Minnesota as something that is the center of the community,or the paper industry in Glenn Falls,N.Y.”
The PWAP sought art that would embellish public buildings. It was led by art professionals in 16 regions in the United States and administered by the Treasury Department.
Most of the paintings in the collection were done by artists in their 20s and 30s who did not necessarily have a status or fame. Gurney said that this “shows that the money went to the younger professional artists who were in a position where they hadn't established their reputations,who were in a situation where they needed help and they were very glad to get it and took it seriously.”
At that time,large groups of immigrants were coming into the United States. In the collection,a fourth of the painters were immigrants,mostly from Europe. Gurney explained that,though these people tried very hard to assimilate the culture,”You were not separated out because you were an immigrant,you became part of a group that were understood in art.” He cited Harry Gottlieb's “Filling the Ice House,” which depicts a group of people working together to store ice.
Although the PWAP lasted only six months,from mid-December 1933 to June 1934,it spent $1.3 million to hire 3,749 artists who created 15,663 paintings,murals,sculptures,prints,drawings and craft objects. In April 1934,the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington exhibited more than 500 of those works. The Roosevelts chose 32 to display at the White House. Two are included in this collection: Millard Sheets' “Tenement Flats” and Ray Strong's “Golden Gate Bridge.”
The creators of New Deal understood that art was an essential component in keeping the American spirit alive,according to a museum press release,and so they took the chance to support the arts program in the frugality of the time.
“It may,in point fact,help us understand that there is something in the arts that is worth promoting in a time when things are not great,” Gurney said about the possible impressions of people seeing the exhibit.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has one of the largest collections of New Deal art in the world,with nearly 3,000 objects. The museum decided to mount the 1934 show now to help save money as many art institutions are facing financial challenges.
“It's all from our own collection,and so it gave us time to get ourselves collected and try hopefully to raise money for the shows that are coming up,” Gurney said. “But when the economy tanked in September and October,all of a sudden this seemed like a timely show. And it turns out by stroke of luck by some degree it is the 75th anniversary of the program.”