United States post office murals
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Post office murals are artwork in U.S. post offices commissioned by the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the U.S. Treasury Department during the years 1934-1943. They are examples of New Deal art.
As one of the projects in the New Deal during the Great Depression in the United States, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was developed to bring artist workers back into the job market and assure the American public that better financial times were on the way.
In 1933, nearly $145 million in public funds was appropriated for the construction of federal buildings, such as courthouses, schools, libraries, post offices and other public structures, nationwide. Under the direction of the PWAP, the agency oversaw the production of 15,660 works of art by 3,750 artists. These included 700 murals on public display. With the ending of the PWAP in the summer of 1934, it was decided that the success of the program should be extended by founding the Section of Painting and Sculpture (which was renamed the Section of Fine Arts in 1938-43) under the U.S. Treasury Department. The Section of Painting and Sculpture was initiated to commission 1,400 murals in federal post offices buildings in more than 1,300 cities across America'[A]
The Section focused on reaching as many American citizens as possible. Since the local post office seemed to be the most frequented government building by the public, the Section requested that the murals, approximately 12’ by 5’ oil paintings on canvas, be placed on the walls of the newly constructed post offices exclusively. It was recommended that 1% of the money budgeted for each post office be set aside for the creation of the murals.
The murals are the subject of efforts by the United States Postal Service to preserve and protect them. This is particularly important and problematical as some of them have disappeared or deteriorated. And some are ensconced in buildings that are worth far less than the artwork.
Although the Section of Fine Arts program proved to be an overall success, it was not without elements of controversy. Whereas the PWAP paid artists hourly wages, the Section of Fine Arts program awarded contracts to artists based on works entered in both regional and national competitions. For this purpose, the country was divided into sixteen regions.
Artists submitted sketches anonymously to a committee of their peers for judging. The committees, composed of art critics, fellow artists and architects, selected the finest works. These were then sent, along with the artists’ names in sealed envelopes, to the Section of Fine Arts for ultimate selection. This anonymity was to ensure that all competing artists had an equal opportunity of winning a commission. However, many local painters felt they were being kept out of the process, with the majority of contracts going to the better known artists.
The selection of out-of-state artists brought other issues into question, such as stereotypes of rural people being portrayed merely as hicks and hayseeds and not having the murals express their cultural values and work ethics. Many residents of small towns, most notably in the Southern states, resented the portrayal of rural lifestyles by artists who had never visited the areas where their artwork would be displayed.
Arkansas post office murals
The controversy was of particularly acute in Arkansas. For seven decades following the Civil War, Arkansas had been perceived as the epitome of poverty and illiteracy by the rest of the nation. Many Arkansans had dealt with hardship and tribulation on a daily basis and the coming of the Depression had not made life easier. Although the sketches of such renowned artists as Thomas Hart Benton and Joseph P. Vorst were based on actual events and people encountered during their travels across the state, they sometimes focused on the worst aspects of life in these rural towns.
This was not the legacy that Arkansans wished to leave their children and grandchildren. They wanted the murals to give hope to the younger generation in overcoming adversity, and provide inspiration for a brighter future with better things to come. In some instances, artists were asked to submit multiple drawings before being accepted by the community. When approval was given by the local residents on the artists’ final sketches, work on the murals proceeded, much to the satisfaction of all those involved.
Artists who contributed murals
- Walter Inglis Anderson, - Ocean Springs, MS
- Kenneth Miller Adams, - Goodland, KS
- Gifford Beal, - Allentown, PA
- Peter Blume, - Canonsburg, PA, Geneva, NY
- Ernest L. Blumenschein, - Walsenburg, CO
- Jean Charlot, - McDonough, GA
- Dean Cornwell, – Morgantown, NC, Chapel Hill, NC
- Gustaf Dalstrom, – Chicago, IL, Herrin, IL
- Boris Deutsch, - Truth or Consequences, NM
- Stevan Dohanos, - West Palm Beach, FL, Charlotte Amalie, VI
- Thomas Donnelly, - Attica, New York
- Stephen Etnier, - Spring Valley, NY, Boston, MA
- Philip Evergood, - Jackson, GA
- Paul Faulkner, - North Platte, NE, Kewaunee, WI
- Frances Foy, – Gibson City, IL, Dunkirk, IN
- Anne Goldthwaite, - Atmore, AL, Tuskegee, AL
- Natalie Smith Henry, - Springdale, AR
- Peter Hurd, - Dallas, TX
- Reva Jackman, - Attica, IN and Bushnell, IL
- Karl Knaths, Rehoboth Beach, DE
- Albert Kotin, - Ada, Ohio
- Thomas C. Lea, III, - El Paso, TX, Pleasant Hill, MO
- Elizebeth Lochrie, - St Anthony, ID
- Ethel Magafan, - Wynne, AR, Auburn, NE, Madill, OK, Denver, CO
- Herman Maril, - Altavista, VA
- Solomon McCombs, - Marietta, OK
- Stephen Mopope, - Anadarko, OK
- William C. Palmer, - Arlington, MA, Monticello, IA
- Alzira Peirce, - Ellswoth, ME, South Portland, ME
- Louis Raynaud, - Abbeville,LA
- Andrée Ruellan, - Emporia, VA
- Paul Sample, - Warwick, RI
- Henry Schnakenberg, – Fort Lee, NJ
- Andrew Standing Shoulder, - Blackfoot, ID
- Edward Buk Ulreich, – Columbia, MO
- W. Richard West, Sr., - Okemah, OK
- Marguerite Zorach, - Monticello, IN, Peterborough, NH
- “Often mistaken for WPA art, post office murals were actually executed by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts. Commonly known as 'the Section,' it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department. Headed by Edward Bruce, a former lawyer, businessman, and artist, the Section’s main function was to select art of high quality to decorate public buildings if the funding was available. By providing decoration in public buildings, the art was made accessible to all people.”
- Marling, Karal Ann (1982). Wall to Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Broun, Elizebeth. "Exhibitions/American Art". americanart.si.edu. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 23 September 2014.
- Raynor, Patricia (October–December 1997). "Articles from EnRoute: Off The Wall: New Deal Post Office Murals". Off The Wall (Smithsonian National Postal Museum) 6 (4). Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Park, Marlene; Martkowitz, Gerald (1984). Democratic Vistas: Post Office Art in the New Deal (First ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-0877223481. ISBN 0877223483.
- Leonard, Devin (September 20, 2013). "Postal Service Makes Deals to Rescue New Deal-Era Murals". Bloomberg Business News. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Smith, Sandra Taylor; Christ, Mark E. Arkansas Post Offices and the Treasury Department's Section Art Program, 1935-1942 (PDF). Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. Retrieved 23 September 2014.
- Parisi, Phillip (2004). The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
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- "Indians at the Post Office". postalmuseum.si.edu. Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
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- Petteys, Chris, “Dictionary of Women Artists: An international dictionary of women ratites born before 1900”, G.K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1985
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- Historian, United States Postal Service. New Deal Art in Post Offices August 2013 http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/new-deal.pdf (accessed December 13, 2013).
- National Register of Historic Places, Cross County, Arkansas (2009) http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/AR/Cross/state.html (accessed November 15, 2009).
- National Register of Historic Places, Randolph County, Arkansas (2009) http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/AR/Randolph/state.html (accessed November 15, 2009).
- Parisi, Philip. The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.
- Smith, Bradley. The USA: A History in Art. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1975.