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Post Office Murals

POST OFFICE MURALS

In October 1934 the Section of Painting and Sculpture was established within the U.S. Department of the Treasury. From 1938 until its closure in 1943 it was referred to as the Section of Fine Arts. The Section was assigned one percent of construction funds to decorate new federal buildings, many of which were post offices. Although involved in prestigious projects decorating government buildings in Washington, D.C., the Section of Fine Arts is best known for the post office art that it commissioned. In total, the Section decorated buildings in more than one thousand American cities and towns.

Edward Bruce was the director of the Section of Fine Arts. A businessman, artist, and ardent New Dealer, Bruce had been director of the Public Works of Art Project that was attached to the Civil Works Administration during 1933 and 1934. Bruce's strong convictions about government funding of the arts influenced the Section's work. He believed that federal sponsorship needed to be justified through work of high quality, and although the Section of Fine Arts aided many artists, in contrast to the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, it did not prioritize the provision of relief. Commissions were awarded through competitions of invited artists, a practice that was intended to favor established artists. Of the 850 artists employed by the Section of Fine Arts, only one-sixth were women and only three were African Americans. Bruce was also prescriptive about the style of art that would decorate the post offices. An enthusiast for realism and the American Scene, he approved only one abstract mural—by Lloyd R. Ney in New London, Ohio.

The aim of the post office murals was to make "art a part of daily life." This was achieved at the outset through the artists working in public spaces, interacting with the community, and demystifying the creative process. Generally, the muralists worked either with oil and canvas that was glued to the wall, in buon fresco that involved painting directly on wet plaster, or in fresco secco in which paint was applied to a dry wall. In addition, some murals were relief sculptures, using wood, plaster, or stone.

The post office was a major focus of American communities and an obvious link between the people and the federal government. However, the Section of Fine Arts did not proclaim federal authority through triumphal symbolism or, normally, through explicit references to the New Deal and its programs. Rather, the murals reflected local community characteristics, registered their histories, and celebrated their citizens. The murals contained powerful mythic images of the United States as expressed in representations of the family, pioneers, farmers, and workers, and they embedded such values as liberty, democracy, individualism, and opportunity. Although the artists of many post office murals were inspired by the Mexican revolutionary muralists—Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco—their work tended to lack similar critical perspectives. Rarely did the murals engage with the impact of the Depression, and they tended to omit representations of conflict based on race, class, and gender. As such, they not only confirmed the strong bonds between localities and the state, they also proclaimed the vitality and strength of national values and institutions, offering hope for the future beyond the economic crisis.

See Also: AMERICAN SCENE, THE; ART; FEDERAL ART PROJECT (FAP); RIVERA, DIEGO.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Beckham, Sue Bridwell. Depression Post Office Murals and Southern Culture: A Gentle Reconstruction. 1989.

Contreras, Belisario R. Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art. 1983.

Marling, Karal Ann. Wall-to-Wall America: A Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression. 1982.

Marling, Karal Ann. "A Note on New Deal Iconography: Futurology and the Historical Myth." In Prospects 4 (1979): 421–440.

McKinzie, Richard D. The New Deal for Artists. 1973.

Park, Marlene, and Gerald E. Markowitz. Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal. 1984.

Stuart Kidd

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