Most of the world’s great museums strive to strip architectural ornament away, presenting their works in a “white cube,” free from distraction. Murals – especially those in prominent and public buildings – are designed to interact with the viewer and the space in which they are placed. They often tell a bigger story; a story about a specific time, a specific place, and specific people.
The Bronx Post Office (1937; Thomas H. Ellett) has been in the press quite a bit recently. The historic civic building was just sold, but despite its landmarked exterior, its interior along with it’s 13 historic murals, was recently in jeopardy before the New York Landmarks Conservancy just announced they will be saved. The series of murals are significant Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals painted by the prolific Ben Shahn (1898-1967). Shahn’s murals can be seen all over the country, and we helped to conserve the mosaic murals he designed for the Nashville Temple in 1959. Preservationists are fighting to keep Shahn’s important works off the chopping block.
The WPA, created by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression, is the most extensive federal work program ever developed. From 1935 to 1943, the WPA created more than 5,000 jobs for artists, and produced over 225,000 works of American art. In addition to artists like Shahn, this was also likely the first time African Americans were hired to create public works of art. Such was the case with the Harlem Hospital murals. Georgette Seabrook, Charles Alston, and Vertis Hayes were all African Americans commissioned by the WPA in 1936 to create murals for the hospital. Those murals remain as culturally significant for the neighborhood and for New York City today as they did when they were painted. However, these works did not earn their place without controversy. Depictions of African Americans in the WPA era are often criticized today for being unfavorably stereotypical. But at the time they were created, they faced an entirely different set of obstacles just for existing. So if these are so surrounded by unfavorable opinions, why should be care about preserving them?
It is because these murals illustrate progress. Both literally and figuratively. WPA themed art often dealt with themes of industrialism inspired by the social issues of the day by muralists like Diego Rivera. But more than industrial growth, they illustrate a societal change. Looking beyond the depictions of African Americans, the murals stand as a symbol for the introduction of black art into the modern world. Shahn’s goal as a social realist was to show the Bronx (which was predominately foreign-born Jews in the 1930’s) scenes of American life as it existed on other areas of the country. With that came depictions of African Americans picking cotton, along with other rural and industrial depictions of labor. These murals preserve a unique perspective on 1930’s American industrialism and social inequalities that have shifted since their conception.
These murals also serve to empower communities. Cultural diversity is a hallmark of progressive communities, and marginalized communities are given a voice through the stories they tell. In 1937, sixteen year old African American prodigy Georgette Seabrook was ordered by the hospital to add white people to her depiction of a black Harlem, lest people begin thinking of Harlem Hospital as a black hospital. She painted them in, but not without making her point. She added several white figures, but had them looking away from the viewer, or obscured their faces. This is in part why Seabrooke’s Recreation in Harlem is so significant, and why it is a major symbols for the hospital and local community.
These works can be a powerful medium of study. At the University of Tennessee, we are removing and storing The History of Tennessee, painted by Marion Greenwood in 1954. The mural was installed in a ballroom which is being razed to make way for a new student center. We will conserve the mural once it is installed as part of an exhibition in 2014. The mural, influenced by the style of the WPA era, dynamically illustrates the history of music from the region and is one of the university’s most important artworks. But it has been covered for most of its life due to the way it portrays African Americans as “cotton-picking” laborers and because it was vandalized in 1970. The mural was first covered by wood paneling, but then it was placed behind curtains that were only opened to allow for academic study. This mural is a piece of history, and when studied, it serves to foster greater cultural understandings.
Murals and artworks completed as part of the WPA helped to facilitate the inclusion of a broader points of view that previously didn’t have means of finding their audience. We’re grateful to the artists who told these stories and to the preservationists who fought – and continue to fight – to keep them a part of our buildings and cultural consciousness so we may build stronger connections between our past and present.