New Deal Art in the Northwest

During this pandemic I’m thanking my lucky stars for books. It’s helpful to keep engaged with ideas and lives outside of our own experience.

This week, I’ve been reading about another globally tumultuous time, the Great Depression, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the crisis.

Roosevelt’s plan to help Americans dig out of financial ruin involved a bold slate of programs dubbed the New Deal. In 1933, within his first 100 days as president, Roosevelt created a host of new agencies that sometimes were referred to as “alphabet soup” for the acronyms that arose. The Federal Housing Administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and Social Security Administration are some of the agencies still around.

One of Roosevelt’s key recovery strategies was to put people back to work. A handsome new book titled “New Deal Art in the Northwest” shows how a series of federal government programs including the Public Works of Art Project, Treasury Relief Art Project, Federal Art Project and Section of Painting and Sculpture tapped the talents of hundreds of visual artists and put them to work throughout Oregon, Washington state, Idaho and Montana.

They created murals, sculptures and more creations in post offices, schools and other public buildings, capturing life in the moment.

This book accompanies an exhibit that curator Margaret Bullock spent more than a decade working on.

The exhibit opened in the Tacoma Art Museum in late February, just weeks before Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee issued his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.

The exhibit is scheduled to be at the musuem through Aug. 16, then will travel to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University.

It’s a pity that COVID-19 is currently preventing the public’s opportunity to see the exhibit in person, but in the meantime, the intensively-researched and richly illustrated book is the next best thing.

The book includes illuminating essays by 10 curators and art historians. There is some overlap in the content, but there’s no harm in considering the same set of facts from different perspectives.

As farsighted as these New Deal art programs were, their success was only as effective as the people involved in administering the programs would allow. In some cases, progress was thwarted by bureaucrats who hadn’t bought into the value of a program that hired artists. Some essays also point to sexism and racism that prevented participation and accurate representation of many.

On the other hand, the New Deal’s investment in art incorporated craftsmanship and inspiration into government buildings, university campuses and other public places like the iconic Timberline Lodge. What a far-reaching legacy.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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