United States post office murals

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Mural of Mail Carriers inside San Pedro Post Office, California.

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.

History[edit]

Brady, Texas post office mural
Elgin, Texas post office mural

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.[1]

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.[1] 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'[2]

Rachel Silverthorne's Ride in the Muncy, Pennsylvania post office

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.[2][3]

Controversies[edit]

Mural in the Mount Ayr, Iowa post office

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.[4]

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.[1] 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.[5]

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.[1]

Arkansas post office murals[edit]

Mural in the Charlotte Amalie, Virgin Islands post office by Stevan Dohanos.
Winter Sports mural in Kewaunee, WI, by Paul Faulkner in 1940.

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.[4]

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.[1] 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.[3]

In Arkansas 19 post offices received murals, with two post offices, one in Berryville, Carroll County and the another in Monticello, Drew County, receiving sculpture.[4]

Artists who contributed murals[edit]

see List of United States post office murals

Further reading[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Marling, Karal Ann (1982). Wall to Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 
  2. ^ a b Broun, Elizebeth. "Exhibitions/American Art". americanart.si.edu. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved 23 September 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Park, Marlene; Martkowitz, Gerald (1984). Democratic Vistas: Post Office Art in the New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 
  4. ^ a b c Smith, Sandra Taylor; Christ, Mark E. Arkansas Post Offices and the Treasury Department's Section Art Program, 1935-1942. Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. Retrieved 23 September 2014. 
  5. ^ Parisi, Phillip (2004). The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People. College Station: Texas A&M University Press. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Murals. "Living New Deal". livingnewdeal.org. p. 1. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  7. ^ "Indians at the Post Office". postalmuseum.si.edu. Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved 9 December 2014. 
  8. ^ "File:Laying the Cornerstone of Old East.jpg". Retrieved 9 December 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Introduction. "Indians at the Post Office". postal museum.si.edu. Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Mural-2/38". livingnewdeal.org. Living New Deal. p. 2. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  11. ^ Carlisle, John C., “A Simple and Vital Design: The Story of the Indiana Post Office Murals”, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, 1995 p34-35
  12. ^ Petteys, Chris, “Dictionary of Women Artists: An international dictionary of women ratites born before 1900”, G.K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1985
  13. ^ "Abbeville Museum (former Post Office)". livingnewdeal.org. Living New Deal. Retrieved 9 December 2014. 
  14. ^ ""Pony Express" Mural". livingnewdeal.org. Living New Deal. Retrieved 9 December 2014. 
  15. ^ Carlisle, John C., “A Simple and Vital Design: The Story of the Indiana Post Office Murals”, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, 1995