New Deal Murals: A Legacy for Today's Public Art and Art Education

By Kieffer, Connie W. | Art Education, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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New Deal Murals: A Legacy for Today's Public Art and Art Education

Kieffer, Connie W., Art Education

A recent discovery of 1930s New Deal murals in a school's attic has been the impetus for identifying how the legacy of these murals impacts on today's public art and contemporary art education. In 1995, a Chicago eighth grader, Hana Field, studying New Deal art, was the catalyst for the discovery of the treasure of New Deal art at Highland Park High School, in Highland Park, Illinois. As Hana researched Illinois Federal art projects, she read in Mavigliano & Lawson (1990) about Highland Park's nine panels depicting industrial scenes painted by Edgar Britton, one of Chicago's outstanding muralists of the 1930s. The murals were found in the attic where they had been stored since 1955 when the building where they had been displayed was demolished. Since their discovery, they have been cleaned and restored by the Chicago Conservation Center and now hang in the school's Instructional Media Center. More importantly, the story of the Edgar Britton murals has been an impetus for student and faculty research about regional art and its role in Depression era culture and the murals' impact on today's public art and art education.

At the re-dedication of Britton's murals during the 1995 Focus on the Arts, a biennial art celebration held at Highland Park High School, students shared what they learned from the discovery of the murals. Art History students investigated the nine panels representing the industries of mining, printing, farming, building, communication, transportation, steel construction, lumbering, and machine work as they were named by the 1934 Art Club students CArt Club names murals," Shoreline, 1934). To date, they found the only student involvement with the murals was the naming of each panel. They learned that the high school had an excellent vocational program during the 1930s, including a Building and Trades program where students built homes for community members, so the industrial theme fit the school and local community. Art History students also explained why this era of American art was considered artistically insignificant, but at the same time they began to question this notion. They learned that these murals were painted as part of the first of four New Deal art projects, the short-lived Public Works Art Project (PWAP). They found that Britton's selection as the artist was because of his artistic expertise in addition to the fact that he needed the $96.00 commission that artists earned for this project.

Advanced Placement Studio Art students studied the fresco painting techniques of Britton, marveling at his use of angle and perspective to depict the role of the workers and foremen. They noted the patriotic use of color: red, white, and blue. At the same time, they identified the Mexican muralist influence in both the muscular style and political meaning as indicated by a red star on a worker's shirtsleeve. Chemistry students traveled to the Chicago Conservation Center where the murals were restored, to learn about the complexity of the restoration process including the importance of chemistry knowledge in art restoration,


While the Federal Art projects were a way to provide economic relief for Americans, they served other purposes. Before the New Deal, most art was grounded in Western European tradition. American artists untrained in that tradition were for the most part ignored. Following that tradition, art was considered to be for the elite who could afford to view it in galleries or buy it for display in their finely appointed homes. New Deal art proiects were a way "to make art more American, more accessible to the public and more democratic" (Badger, 1989, p. 218). The Federal Art projects were called "art for the millions" (O'Connor, 1973). They brought art to the countryside, to the local post offices and schools where the American public gathered. They made art accessible to Americans throughout the country.

Formal art education, at this juncture, was in its infancy evolving from its early roots in the industrial arts (Efland & Soucy, 1992).

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