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us post office mural showing workers in blue uniforms delivering mail

United States Post Office Murals

These are murals that are noteworthy that were made in the New Deal art done between 1934 and 1943. The US Department of the Treasury commissioned this painting. During the commission, there was a considerable level of competition, and only the selected got commissioned.

There were 1400 murals made for federal post office buildings all over the US. 1300 cities got murals in their post offices under the new deal. The efforts of the respective post offices to take care of the walls determine the state of the paintings now.

The New Deal came up during the great depression, and one of its projects was the public works of art project. The project was born in 1933, and its main aim was to get artists in the job market and give assurance to a hopeless nation that times would get better and that they would recover financially.

us post office mural showing workers in blue uniforms delivering mail

The construction of federal buildings that came about in 1933 had $145 million set aside for this works. The federal buildings included courthouses, post offices, libraries, and schools. The public works of art project oversaw the production of 15660 artworks by over 3750 artists. Of the 15000 works of art, 700 were murals that were for public display.

The public works of art project came to an end in 1934. The success of the project was recognized, and in its honor, the section of painting and sculpture began, and it was under the US Treasury. The part was expected to carry on the activities of the public works project and take forward its successes.

The part of painting and sculpture tried to reach as many people as they could and therefore decided to look for the places that most people visited and often. The post office in those times was a very popular place that had a lot of people going in and out of at all times. The section, therefore, got their center for the most impact to the people.

usps mural from the 40s showing workers stylized in pink

In every post office, a 12×5 oil painting on canvas was to be put up on the walls of post offices. Each post office had a construction budget that the section gave recommendations for 1% of it was put into the painting of the murals.

Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) was established in 1935 and got funding by the Works Progress Administration (WAP). The newly formed TRAP was to provide decorative details for the already existent federal buildings. The section was in charge of TRAP and supervised all their works. Once the creative ideas process came to an end, the lead artist for each building was selected and then given assistants from the Federal Art Project of WPA.

Edward Bruce led the section and TRAP. The aim of these projects was to decorate and add beauty to government buildings all over America. Every painting put up on a government building had to be a quality painting that did not raise any controversy of an issue among the people. The murals were expected to have an enormous positive impact on the people and the American culture.

united states post office mural showing a large stylized piece of corn

The art was successfully put up and served their purpose for a considerable amount of time, but the task of protecting and taking care of the murals fell to the post offices. The problem was that most of the post offices let the murals deteriorate. Only a few were taken care of. In some instances, the paintings were put in ancient buildings which made them lose their value faster.

Controversies surrounding the United States Post Office Murals

Controversies always find a way of cropping up even when all the right methods have been followed to the letter. In this case, people brought up issues with the selection of the artists working on the murals. The rural people saw the selection of outsider artists as an insult to them.

For the people, outsider artists would not know their culture and in turn not express the culture and practices of those individuals in the murals. They were opposed to ideas that were not local. The south side states mostly disliked that a painter who had no experience in rural life could paint and depict their life. Having strangers put up their works in places that they had never before visited did not sit well with the locals.

united states post office mural showing a large picture of people and a woman on a horse

The states that were local were poor, and most of the population was illiterate especially the state of Arkansas. The fact that the murals sent to their post offices only focused on the worst conditions of the people. Though right, it did not make the people appreciate the art project.

Since a mural, the paintings on the buildings were permanent, most states rejected the depiction of their states as poor and illiterate of in other cases as violent because that was not the legacy that they wanted their children and the coming generations to find. It led to artists being asked to present sketches before the final work was selected. Paintings of hope for the future were preferred by most people.

Selection Process for Artists

When the section came about, they did not continue the tradition of the public works of the art project of paying artists by the hour. They instead awarded contracts to the artists, and they got paid depending on the works that they produced. The artists were from those who had entered regional and national art competitions.

usps mural showing a large bridge with landscape below

Those who wanted to take part presented their sketches to a committee that would then judge their works. The sketches had to be anonymous ton eliminate any favoritism. The best designs selected were then sent to the section of fine arts where the artists’ final battle round for a position went down.

There were still complaints from the local artists that there was favoritism and corruption and only the known artists got the contracts. After the selection, artists then went through a test which was to paint an American scene. Controversial paintings were discouraged and disqualified if produced. The artists only got paid after the approval of their work.

federal arts project logo

Federal Arts Project

The Federal Arts Project (FAP) began in 1935 as a New Deal program to facilitate the growth of art in the US. It was under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and was among five other projects initialized to oversee the development of various sectors in the New Deal. The primary purpose of the project was to employ artists for mural creation, paintings, sculptures and all aspects of art.

WPA created over 100 art centers in the country to document, research and study the American culture and get to showcase it publicly through art. The exercise was very successful because ten thousand artists were under the program during the great depression.

During its tenure, more than 100,000 paintings were collected and well over 18000 sculptures. Most of the artists who did not have the financial capability to support themselves were employed and supported in their art by this project.

In the 1930s and 1940s, abstract art was not very popular. The federal arts project preferred figurative art. Pollock, an abstract painter, was supported by the project when his art was not very lucrative. The art centers that the federal arts project had begun all over the country educated children, artists, and upcoming artists.

federal arts project painting by pollock

The federal arts project succeeded in bringing awareness of art to the public. It gave hope to so many aspiring artists and provided job opportunities for thousands of artists in the short span of time that it was functional. So many artists got to learn and better their art skills through the project.

Works accomplished under the federal art project

During the early years of FAP, over 1000 artists began to work with WPA. In those years, the success of FAP was realized almost immediately from the quality of art produced and the impact that it made on the public. The artists would get their payments depending on their work and those who needed financial support.

Arshile Gorky is among the first most notable artists to work with FAP. Since the start of FAP, he collaborated with the mural division and earned up to $103 per month. He was assigned a job in 1935 by the head of the painting division to provide sketches for the Floyd Bennett Field administration building in Brooklyn.

Federal Arts Project aviation mural painted by Gorsky

The murals were to be aviation inspired and were supposed to include stories of man aspiring to fly in a romantic setting; it would also show man’s attempts at building a flying machine. Gorky took up the assignment and internalized it; he decided to give people a feel of flying and not just show people in airplanes.

His first idea was a ten-panel mural that he gave the name “Aviation: evolution of forms under aerodynamic limitations.” His vision for the piece was that it would be spread across four walls and have photos of aeronautical figures. After several months working on the sketch, he came up with more than 50 designs and his ideas and visions for the projects kept on growing.

Gorky did not agree with the idea of incorporating photos into his project, and he therefore began convincing FAP why he should be allowed to work on his mural, the site for the project then changed to Newark airport. In 1937, there was the unveiling of the murals that were selected together with the photographs by David Wyatt.

The work of Gorky was significantly recognized and appreciated. The WPA opened an art gallery called the Federal Art Project Gallery in New York. Some of the earliest works that were in the gallery were the watercolors by Jackson Pollock.

willem de kooning federal arts project painting

There were over 6000 artists employed by WPA by 1936, among them Willem de Kooning who quit his job at a shoe store as the designer for the store’s window to join FAP. He was able to work with Harold Rosenberg once he joined WPA.

subway federal arts project painting

Mark Rothko in the same year presented portraits for the Treasury relief art project. It was also part of the WPA projects. The paintings included “two women at the window” and “subway” both in 1937. The many workers in the WPA caught the eye of the government, and the government announced that every employee of WPA had to be an American citizen.

Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning had to stop working any further with FPA because of their citizenships. Most of the non-citizen employees continuing to work regardless of the announcement, but Willem opted to resign from the job.

In 1939, FPA began to lay off some of its workers. Gorky was able to continue working as he got his citizenship but Mark was laid off from FAP. In 1940, WPA came up with a new rule stating that artists should be in constant rotation. Every artist that have been in service for 18 consecutive months was to be laid off for at least one month. It saw the departure of Pollock temporarily.

These were the days that began to mark the end of FAP and WPA. Pollock returned in 1940 and on the first of January in 1943, Lee Krasner was laid off, and less than a month later Pollock was also laid off. In June of the same year, the FPA stopped supporting artists.

At the end of 1943, most of the WPA-funded paintings were on sale at auction by the government and that marked the dissolution of WPA. The WPA and FAP left a mark on the people from the number of artists that had gotten opportunities from the program.

The FAP went down as a project that mostly supported figurative artists rather than abstract art. During the years that WPA and FAP were working, they came up with over 200, 000 art pieces. A majority of those art pieces got lost or destroyed during the dissolution of the program.

All the art that got funding from WPA remains federal property to date. The General Services Administration works together with the FBI and artists to find and recover the works. The GSA is the custodian of the arts and carries the task with keeping an inventory of all federal art.

By 2014, the GSA had managed to gather only 20,000 of the artwork. The search for the WPA arts still continues although most are destroyed and of poor condition. There were 122 FAP paintings recovered from libraries in California in 2015.

For more be sure to check out the Library of Congress Federal Arts Project page.