THE FEDS’ BRUSH WITH ART
Seventy-five years ago America had a new president who, in his first months in office, jump-started the economy with new programs that put Americans to work.
Fortunately for New Orleans, some of those workers were artists, and we can still admire and appreciate their government-sponsored output.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal provided an alphabet soup of programs. For artists, the first one was the P.W.A. – the Public Works of Art program, the current subject of a 75th anniversary exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum, “1934: A New Deal for Artists” (www.si.edu, with pictures at www.flickr.com/photos/americanartmuseum/sets).
One possible reason for FDR’s government-sponsored art was that in the 1920s the Mexican government had sponsored a series of murals, telling the story of their country. Two officials of the U.S. Treasury Department (which oversaw government buildings) hoped to put similar murals in American public buildings, and called a meeting in December 1933 in Washington of the new Advisory Committee to the Treasury on the Arts. Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, was present, and one of the regional museum directors in attendance was Ellsworth Woodward, former head of the Newcomb College Art School and then-director of the Isaac Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art).
Woodward would be put in charge of a region including Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. Also on the regional board were New Orleanians: philanthropist Mrs. Edgar B. Stern, Mrs. E. M. Gilmore (columnist Dorothy Dix) and architect Gen. Allison Owen.
The project had two goals: to embellish public buildings and to provide work for unemployed artists. Of the 3,749 artists who participated in the national program 65 were from Louisiana, mostly from New Orleans, according to Patricia Crosby in her 1981 Tulane University Master of Fine Arts thesis, “The New Deal Art Projects in Louisiana.”
Louise Hoffman, author of the 2009 book, Josephine Crawford: An Artist’s Vision, notes that while her subject may not have been desperately in need of a job, she would’ve welcomed the challenge as an artist. “She was pretty game. Anybody who could scoot off to Paris by herself at age 49 is somebody who could very well do this,” Hoffman says.
“The people who were doing it were also her friends: Clarence Millet, Angela Gregory. My guess is that she entered into it with great enthusiasm,” Hoffman continues.
The P.W.A. ended June 30, 1934. Regional Director Woodward pointed out that during the project’s brief existence, his area’s artists produced 1,052 works of art (for which they were paid $43,000) and that all had been distributed to public buildings. Most of them apparently went to Washington, D.C.
New Orleans artist Catherine Howell did an oil painting, “The Oyster Shuckers,” that was chosen by the Roosevelts for the White House. Today it’s at the Smithsonian, and can be seen online.
There were three other art programs in the New Deal: the Section of Painting and Sculpture, the Treasury Relief Art Project and the Works Progress (later changed to Projects) Administration (W.P.A.) Federal Art Project. All were active in Louisiana.
The Treasury Relief Art Project produced one Louisiana work: a mural by Xavier Gonzalez of the Newcomb Art School. The mural, depecting the strawberry industry, was originally displayed in the Hammond Post Office. It has since been moved, but is occasionally exhibited.
After the P.W.A. ended, the Treasury Department began its Section of Painting and Sculpture. This project produced 200 watercolors for patient rooms at the Hansen’s Disease Center at Carville. And, besides works for other public buildings, 18 Louisiana Post Offices had murals created.
There were two Post Office murals near New Orleans. The one in Arabi has disappeared. The Covington mural is still in place in what’s now the lobby of the St. Tammany School Board Covington Annex, located at 406 E. Boston St. Secretary Donna Peed says it’s “in pretty good shape.” Xavier Gonzalez was paid $630 for the 14-foot long and 4-foot high mural on the once-vital Tung Oil industry.
The U.S. Marine Hospital in New Orleans (most recently the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital) had two large carved wood murals: “Ping Pong” and “Card Players” done by Julius Struppeck of Louisiana State University Art School.
Visible to any passer-by are the two large carvings on the F. Edward Hebert Federal Building on Lafayette Square. “Harvesting Sugar Cane” is by sculptor Armin Scheler; “Flood Control” is by Fred. W. Milback. Gifford Proctor was the sculptor for the four stylized eagles. None of the artists were from Louisiana.
The W.P.A. art project was the largest of all. Local director was Gideon Stanton, followed by Caroline Durieux.
The scope of the federal projects widened: There was a theater and a music program (both had some representation in New Orleans) and the Federal Writer’s Project which produced the New Orleans City Guide and Louisiana: A Guide to the State, plus Gumbo Ya Ya, a folk collection. There were sections black writers and artists, and projects to catalogue works in the Delgado Museum, chronicle New Orleans ironwork in the Index of American Design program and measure architecture for the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Gradually the city and state began sponsoring the arts programs. More works were produced, including what was said to be the largest mural on a single piece of canvas in the U.S., a “History of Printing” for the Canal Street Branch Library (at Canal and S. Gayoso streets) by Edward Schoenberger. The mural, somewhat altered, still exists in the building’s attic and will hopefully be visible and restored when a planned condominium project is completed.
Other local government-funded art from the period includes Enrique Alferez’s aluminum mural on the front of Charity Hospital, his Four Winds Fountain at the Lakefront Airport (and Xavier Gonzalez’s “History of Aviation” mural there), plus the statuary and carvings that adorn City Park and the brick mural of Noah’s Ark at the Audubon Zoo.
Wayne Everard, retired archivist, City Archives and Louisiana Division, says that online at the library’s Web site (nutrias.org/photos/wpa/wpa07.htm) is a large series of photographs of the federal arts programs in the city, in general proving that government sponsorship of the arts works. Even 75 years later we can still enjoy the results!