Hard, hard times all around — look at that art before you hit the ground

Krider National Youth Admininistration

OK, so we’ve had a New Deal. Time for a New New Deal.

And time to look back for inspiration at the old New Deal, which is exactly what the Smithsonian Institution is doing, as reported by the online magazine Art Knowledge News. 1934: A New Deal for Artists will run Feb. 27 through Jan. 3, 2010 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. D.C.

Here’s part of what the museum has to say about the show:

“As the Smithsonian American Art Museum prepares to open 1934: A New Deal for Artists, the nation is engaged in a great discussion about how to restore confidence during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “One contentious issue is whether and how cultural initiatives should play a role in government recovery efforts. This exhibition, which focuses on the first U.S. government program ever to provide direct support for artists, is relevant to that discussion. The legacy of New Deal cultural programs seems indisputable today as we cherish and mine the resources these ‘workers’ left us.”

1934: A New Deal for Artists celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Program by drawing on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s unparalleled collection of vibrant paintings created for the program. The 56 paintings in the exhibition are a lasting visual record of America at a specific moment in time. George Gurney, deputy chief curator, organized the exhibition with Ann Prentice Wagner, curatorial associate.

Federal officials in the 1930s understood how essential art was to sustaining America’s spirit. During the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Public Works of Art Program, which lasted only six months from mid-December 1933 to June 1934. The purpose of the program was to alleviate the distress of professional, unemployed American artists by paying them to produce artwork that could be used to embellish public buildings. The program was administered under the Treasury Department by art professionals in 16 different regions of the country.

Artists from across the United States who participated in the program were encouraged to depict “the American Scene,” but they were allowed to interpret this idea freely. They painted regional, recognizable subjects—ranging from portraits to cityscapes and images of city life to landscapes and depictions of rural life—that reminded the public of quintessential American values such as hard work, community and optimism. These artworks, which were displayed in schools, libraries, post offices, museums and government buildings, vividly capture the realities and ideals of Depression-era America.

Looking back, the stress on “the American Scene” was too jingoistic, and while the art from this program is fascinating as a snapshot in time, much of it suffers from the constraints of uplift laid on the artists. We can do better with the New New Deal — allowing our artists more freedom in their efforts to interpret the times we live in, without the paternalistic guiding hand. But the time is now: Let’s get them to work.