West Bend Art Museum

West Bend, WI



Essay segment by Mary Michie on pages 22-23 of 1998 exhibition catalog (Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 97-061471) titled "Foundations of Art in Wisconsin." The exhibition of the same name premiered at the West Bend Art Museum on August 12, 1998 and then was shown at two other museums. Essay segment reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.


Wisconsin's New Art Deal

by Mary Michie


Wisconsin has its share of national treasures - paintings, sculptures, murals, and crafts created under the New Deal. They were produced during the years of the Great Depression, from 1933 to 1943, and financed by a series of federal programs for the arts. The purpose was to create jobs for unemployed artists and craftspersons and to enhance public buildings built and maintained with tax money. The result is a body of art work from that period, a document of the time -- New Deal Art. Some of the work remains in the buildings where it was originally installed, much of it now is in our museums -- a legacy of paintings of American life in the early part of this century.

Many of us remember the Depression of the 30's, when president Franklin Roosevelt promised all of America a New Deal. This included professional artists. He was prompted by the urging of his friend the muralist, George Biddle, who had traveled to Mexico and been impressed by the murals done there by artists working at laborers' wages. They were public murals, depicting the Mexican Revolution. Biddle wrote Roosevelt in 1933, "The younger artists of America are conscious as they have never been of the special revolution that our country and civilization are going through and they would be eager to express these ideals in a permanent art form if they were given the government's cooperation. They would be contributing to and expressing in living monuments the social ideals that you are struggling to achieve. And I am convinced that our mural art, with a little impetus, can soon result, for the first time in our history, in a vital national expression."

Roosevelt was interested, and passed the idea along to the Treasury Department where it came to the attention of Edward Bruce, a Treasury consultant, lawyer, and -- not incidentally -- part-time painter. This resulted, in December of 1933, in the enactment of the Public Works Art Project, or PWAP, an emergency program that lasted six months. It was financed by the Civil Works Administration and administered by the U.S. Treasury to provide employment, not relief, for needy artists. This initial program employed 3,500 artists nationwide and during that short period 15,000 works in many media were produced.

PWAP was replaced in 1934 by the Section of Painting and Sculpture in the Treasury Department that commissioned murals and sculpture for hundreds of post offices and courthouses that were being built by the Treasury at that time. Approximately one percent of the construction costs were allocated for artwork. Artists were chosen through open, anonymous competitions and selected for the quality of their submitted sketches.

Wisconsin artists received many of the post office mural commissions -- in Wisconsin and in other states as well. Among these were Schomer Lichtner, Ruth Grotenrath, Edmund Lewandowski and Forrest Flower.

In 1935, the Federal Art Project was also established, as part of the WPA, or Works Progress Administration . This far-reaching program produced hundreds of paintings, prints and sculptures. It extended beyond the visual arts to include music, theater and writers' projects to provide employment not only for artists but for musicians, actors, and writers as well.

The FAP, as it was known, allocated money to state organizations that administered each program independent of the federal government. The primary motive in Wisconsin, as in other states, was to put unemployed artists and craftsmen to work and to enhance public buildings. By the time that all federally-subsidized programs ceased at the beginning of World War II, 225,000 paintings, prints, and sculptures had been produced nationwide -- the output of the largest government-sponsored art programs the western world has ever seen.

The Wisconsin Federal Art Projects were based in Milwaukee and included the Creative Painting and Sculpture Unit, the Handicraft Project, and the Design Index unit. The Creative Painting and Sculpture Unit was first directed by Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink, who had co-founded the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee in 1920. Margaret Davis Clark succeeded Partridge in 1939 and continued to head the program until the end in 1943.

The Handicraft Project was headed by Elsa Ulbricht, assisted by Mary June Kellogg. They were so successful that this Milwaukee program was used as a model for similar projects in other areas of the country. A quote from Elsa Ulbricht is typical of their enthusiasm and documents the extent of the work: "Together we selected 50 trained craftsmen, graduates of the State Teachers College or the Layton School, to design works ranging from printed fabrics or yard goods for furniture and dolls. At first we had 250 workers duplicating these pieces under the supervision of the artists; but when the project was 8 years old we had more than 9,000 men and women working on this."

The Design Index, headed by the painter Victor Volk, produced documentary watercolor illustrations of Wisconsin
artifacts used before 1890 for inclusion in the Index of American Design. The dedication and energy of these project leaders contributed largely to their success. They were recognized by their peers as excellent artists, teachers, and administrators; therefore, their judgment was respected.

The entire output in Wisconsin of the combined programs was remarkable. The Creative Painting and Sculpture Unit employed as many as 100 artists at one time and produced 643 easel paintings, 657 prints, 167 sculptures, and 76 print designs. The Handicraft Project produced hundreds of weavings, hand-printed draperies, toys, costumes, hand-printed books, and articles of furniture. The Design Index Unit recorded 400 examples of Wisconsin applied and decorative arts. Narrative and scientific paintings were produced for the Milwaukee Public Museum, as well as diorama paintings, life-size models, decorative carvings, ornamental tiles, cabinetry and stained glass panels.

Under the sponsorship of St. Mary's School in Odanah, Wisconsin, another WPA program employed a Chippewa painter, Peter Whitebird, to document the building of a birch bark canoe. Fifty paintings were done using documentary photographs and a written description of the entire process that had been done in 1927 by George L. Waite. Other customs of the Ojibwa were also depicted by Whitebird in oil paintings.

Some paintings and sculptures for schools and other tax-supported public buildings can be seen in their original locations: the 24 murals of the Milwaukee County Courthouse, painted by Frances Scott Bradford, for example. Many easel paintings and murals have been relocated due to the remodeling of buildings and some have disappeared, as allocation records were not systematically maintained. But a large number of the best paintings have gone into major Wisconsin public collections where they can be seen today.

The murals done under the Treasury Program for the U.S. Post Offices and Courthouses are probably the most accessible of this work in Wisconsin communities. There are 32 good examples of these, with their locations listed at the end of this article. As their titles suggest, they depicted contemporary life and activities, examples of industry and sports, and the landscape. There were historical scenes as well, and these were often idealistic -- we do, after all, like to commemorate the best of our past -- but they nevertheless remain as a document of events.

The Wisconsin landscape murals -- urban and rural -- are perhaps most affectionately regarded. Many of these in
our smaller communities are so closely identified with the location that viewers feel they know that scene or road or even those people in the mural.

The easel paintings in general were not intended as propaganda, except for the armed service recruiting posters done at the end of the program. These young painters worked in the style known as the American School that was identified first in the paintings of John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, and Grant Wood. It was contemporary realism and not particularly idealized. There was very little abstraction of the form and it was not in general a rigid, formalized style. This resulted, in many cases, in genre paintings that documented the times: life in our cities and towns, including back-yards and muddy streets, men and women at work or out of work. The colors were often somber and much of the work reflected the impact of the Depression on our society. These were difficult times, and despair, unemployment and poverty were not ignored.


About the Author:

As of the date of the publication catalogue Mary Michie, a graduate of Ripon College, Central School of Art, London and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was a sculptor and an independent writer and curator of Wisconsin art. Her primary research as of 1998 was on art work completed in Wisconsin during the depression for the Works Projects Administration. This research initially resulted in the 1979 exhibition, New Deal Art, which was held at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. She resided at time of publication in Fort Collins, Colorado.


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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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