Smithsonian art exhibit teaches history of America

Published 9:35 am Sunday, October 21, 2012

Column: Bev Jackson Cotter, Art Is…

While Franklin D. Roosevelt was busy during his first hundred days in office working with Congress to pass the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Public Works Administration, the Farm Credit Act, the Banking Act, the Economy Act and many other programs to help our nation get back on its feet after the Great Depression, he didn’t forget artists.

Bev Jackson Cotter

From December 1933 through June 1934, 3,750 artists produced 15,600 artworks under a program called the Public Works of Art Project.

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From this beginning, several other New Deal art initiatives took place under the Works Progress Administration. The Federal Art Project from 1935 to 1943 employed 5,000 artists, writers, musicians and actors, who created 225,000 works of art, including many murals that are still on display in government buildings, libraries, schools and museums.

Recently I had the opportunity to view a Smithsonian Institute traveling exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society. It included 55 paintings that were done under these federal programs, less than one-third of the paintings in the Smithsonian’s collection of more than 3,000 pieces of art from the 1930s. Many of these paintings were selected by Roosevelt to be display in the White House.

There was an amazing sense of strength and resiliency and American pride in the gallery.

One of the paintings showed an Italian festival with a solemn religious procession, a jazz band and vendors all hawking their wares on a busy Manhattan street corner. Another showed a Civil War statue with the soldier’s head bowed in respect to those who did not return to their loved ones. I was particularly impressed with the painting of Minnesota miners, bent and worn from a long day’s labor, waiting for the ride home, while the new shift of workers toiled in the nearby open pit mine.

Strolling through the exhibit, and later when I was at home, settled in a comfortable chair and slowly turning the pages of the exhibit book, I knew that I was learning history through art.

Most of the paintings were so large that I felt invited to step inside the picture and become a participant.

I watched the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, I sat on the bleachers at a nighttime baseball game and I visited with the tenement ladies as they hung their wash on the lines strung between their balconies.

Art is the most amazing phenomenon. Looking at a painting done by a talented artist, you may feel happiness, or sadness, or anger, excitement, peace or even confusion, but you feel something.

The paintings in this exhibit transported me back to the 1930s and the difficult times my parents talked about. The clothing styles, traditional farm settings, automobiles, industrial machinery, even the personalities shown in the portraits, all provided lessons I never would have received by reading a history book.

This wonderful legacy was given to us by a government that recognized, in addition to financial security, warm homes, food on the table, religious freedom, loving family and friends, we need the arts to make our lives complete.


Bev Jackson Cotter is a member of the Albert Lea Art Center where Reshow, a display of reinventions, will be on display through Nov. 3.