Thousands of murals, paintings, prints and sculptures were created in the 1930s and 1940s during the era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic recovery programs through the auspices of several federal art programs.
Originally called the Section of Painting and Sculpture, the Section of Fine Arts (or, the Section, as it was commonly referred to under both names) was administered by the Treasury Department. The Section of Fine Arts’ primary objective was to “secure suitable art of the best quality available for the embellishment of public buildings.” The section commissioned more than 1,600 site-specific murals and 300 sculptures between 1934 and 1942 for newly constructed federal buildings and post offices.
Unlike the other New Deal art programs, the Section awarded commissions through competitions and paid artists a lump sum for their work. Such competitions were set up so that the artists submitted proposals without their names identifying their submission. In addition the competitions were open to all artists, regardless of economic status, and typically required entries to follow a certain theme relating to the building’s function and geographic location.
A new digital exhibition created by the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian−“Indians at the Post Office: Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals”− features 27 of these artworks depicting American Indians.
The American Indian Museum closely examined 1,630 black-and-white images of these murals and sculptures provided by the U.S. Postal Service, which showed that of the 400 murals depicting American Indian themes, only 24 were actually created by American Indian artists. Most of the artists participating in these visual stories were entirely unfamiliar with the region connected to the post office to which they were assigned, and most were unfamiliar with Indian culture.
“The long-range goal of the ‘Indians at the Post Office: Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals’ online exhibition is to publish 21st-century critiques of the 400 murals to address both their virtues and inaccuracies,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “The goal is to have as many murals as possible researched and interpreted by American Indians, particularly those from the areas and cultures depicted.” Collaboration with tribal college faculty and students from the various regions is planned to address, interpret and provide commentary on the murals.
“These 400 murals will be the focus of this ongoing collaborative project of the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian,” said Allen Kane, director of the National Postal Museum. “We look forward to adding new images and stories every year.”
Posted: 15 January 2014