Post Office Murals

Post Office Murals

The term post office murals is generally used in referring to a series of murals in U.S. post offices commissioned by the Section of Painting and Sculpture of the U.S. Treasury Department during the years 1934-1943. They are examples of New Deal art.

History

As one of the projects in the New Deal during the Great Depression, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was developed to bring artist workers back into the job market and assure the American public that better financial times were on the way. (Marling 1982)

In 1933, nearly $145 million in public funds was appropriated for the construction of federal buildings, such as courthouses, schools, libraries, post offices and other public structures, nationwide. Under the direction of the PWAP, the agency oversaw the production of 15,660 works of art by 3,750 artists, these also included 700 murals that were placed on nationwide display. With the ending of the PWAP in the summer of 1934, it was decided that the success of the program should be extended by founding the Section of Painting and Sculpture (which was renamed the Section of Fine Arts in 1938-43) under the U.S. Treasury Department. (Marling 1982)

The Section focused its goal on reaching as many of American citizens as possible. Since the local post office seemed to be the most frequented government building by the public, the Section requested that the murals, approximately 12’ by 5’ oil paintings on canvas, be placed on the walls of the newly constructed post offices in the 48 states, exclusively. It was recommended that 1% of the money budgeted for each post office be set aside for the creation of the murals. (Park 1984)

Controversies

Although the Section of Fine Arts program proved to be an overall success, it was not without elements of controversy. Whereas the PWAP paid artists hourly wages, the Section of Fine Arts program awarded contracts to artists based on works entered in both regional and national competitions. For this purpose, the country was divided into sixteen regions. (S. T. Smith n.d.)

Artists submitted sketches anonymously to a committee of their peers for judging. The committees, composed of art critics, fellow artists and architects, selected the finest works. These were then sent, along with the artists’ names in sealed envelopes, to the Section of Fine Arts for ultimate selection. (Marling 1982) This anonymity was to ensure that all competing artists had an equal opportunity of winning a commission. However, many local painters felt they were being kept out of the process, with the majority of contracts going to the better known artists. (Parisi 2004)

The selection of out-of-state artists brought other issues into question, such as stereotypes of rural people being portrayed merely as hicks and hayseeds and not having the murals express their cultural values and work ethics. Many residents of small towns, most notably in the Southern states, resented the portrayal of rural lifestyles by artists who had never visited the areas where their artwork would be displayed. (Marling 1982)

Arkansas Post Office Murals

The above controversy was of particularly acute in the state of Arkansas. For seven decades following the Civil War, Arkansas had been perceived as the poster child of poverty and illiteracy by the rest of the nation. Many Arkansans had dealt with hardship and tribulation on a daily basis and the coming of the depression had not made life easier. Although the sketches of such renowned artists as Thomas Hart Benton and Joseph P. Vorst were based on actual events and people encountered during their travels across the state, they sometimes focused on the worst aspects of life in these rural towns. (S. T. Smith n.d.)

However, this was not the legacy that Arkansans wished to leave their children and grandchildren. They wanted the murals to give hope to the younger generation in overcoming adversity, and provide inspiration for a brighter future with better things to come. In some instances, certain artists were asked to submit multiple drawings before being accepted by the community. (Marling 1982) When the approval was given by the local residents on the artists’ final sketches, work on the murals proceeded, much to the satisfaction of all those involved. (Park 1984)

Across the state of Arkansas a total of nineteen post offices received the designated murals, with two post offices, one located in Berryville, Carroll County and the second in Monticello, Drew County, receiving sculpture. Today these sculptures may be viewed in their original settings. (S. T. Smith n.d.)

Artists who contributed murals

References

  • Art Department, University of Central Arkansas.
  • Harris, Jonathon. Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Historian, United States Postal Service. New Deal Art in Post Offices. July 2008. http://www.usps.com/postalhistory/_pdf/NewDeal.pdf (accessed November 10, 2009).
  • Marling, Karal Ann. Wall to Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
  • National Register of Historic Places. ARKANSAS - Cross County . National Register of Historic Places. 2009. http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/AR/Cross/state.html (accessed November 15, 2009).
  • —. ARKANSAS - Randolph County. National Register of Historic Places. 2009. http://www.nationalregisterofhistoricplaces.com/AR/Randolph/state.html (accessed November 15, 2009).
  • Parisi, Philip. The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.
  • Park, Marlene and Gerald E. Martkowitz. Democratic Vistas: Post Office Art in the New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.
  • Smith, Bradley. The USA: A History in Art. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1975.
  • Smith, Sandra Taylor and Mark K. Christ. Arkansas Post Offices and the Treasury Department's Section Art Program, 1938-1942. Little Rock: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

External links

Arkansas murals

  • Benton mural
  • Berryville mural
  • Clarendon mural
  • Clarksville mural
  • Dardanelle mural
  • DeQueen mural
  • DeWitt mural
  • Heber Springs mural
  • Lake Village mural
  • Magnolia mural
  • Monticello mural
  • Morrilton mural
  • Nashville mural
  • Osceola mural
  • Paris mural
  • Piggott mural
  • Pocahontas mural
  • Siloam Springs mural
  • Springdale mural
  • Van Buren mural
  • Wynne mural