Academic journal article The Southern Review

The Inflatable Museum

Academic journal article The Southern Review

The Inflatable Museum

Article excerpt

For more than forty years Glen Canyon Dam, an oil-on-canvas painting by Norman Rockwell, ornamented the Arizona dam's visitor center. Completed late in 1969, more than four feet high by six feet wide, the painting proves unusual among Rockwell's works, most of which he strove to make easy to read. But this picture tells no clear and urgent tale. A family of three Navajos, a cowering hound, and a horse all goggle at the dam from atop a slickrock knoll (fig. 1). In 2015, the U.S. government transferred the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, alleging fears of damage from the Arizona sun. My stories here explore the life of the painting and the program that commissioned it.

Decades of dam building had soured the public and invigorated a wave of conservation crusaders. The Sierra Club routed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (or BuRec) plans in 1968 for dams at Marble and Bridge Canyons, dams that would have made the Grand Canyon a reservoir. (That park now draws some five million visitors a year.) In 1969 BuRec commissioned Rockwell as part of a program meant to renovate the agency's reputation. The program was a novel attempt to green-wash operations and improve public opinion on the eve of major environmental reforms. In 1970, the first Earth Day came to be commemorated. By 1973--the same year the collection of BuRec-commissioned paintings was touring galleries around the nation--Congress had enacted the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System; the National Environmental Policy Act; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Clean Air, the Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts.

Bud Rusho, a Utah-based PR specialist for BuRec, gave an interview in 1995 that recalled the genesis of the art program. "The whole scheme was the dream child of John DeWitt, then working as a public relations specialist for BuRec in Washington, D.C." Readers might stumble like I did over the phrase "dream child." It can refer to an idea that is stillborn, immature, foolish, or trivial. In that quaint phrase, Rusho encapsulated his eventual attitude toward both the art program and his colleague John DeWitt.

DeWitt and Rusho had a falling out in 1969 that says much about the agency and the men who ran it. Friends since 1963, they toured Cataract and Glen Canyons before the latter's dam came online and flooded both. Those BuRec staffers evolved into unequal partners when DeWitt initiated the visiting artists program in Washington, D.C., and began to take the lead. In 1969, DeWitt summoned photographer and writer Rusho to Page, Arizona, to fetch a car for the Rockwells, to chauffeur Norman and his wife Molly, and to take photos for the BuRec annals. Molly was also taking photos, dozens of studies of human and mechanical subjects Rockwell would use back in the studio. A side trip brought the four of them to Rainbow Bridge, the signature arch of the canyon. Rusho "asked Norman if he would pose as if sketching so that I could photograph him, supposedly in action." Rockwell agreed. Instead of pretending to sketch, "We somehow found an 8" x 10" piece of pink construction paper, and Norman quickly drew an astoundingly accurate sketch of Rainbow Bridge, signed it and handed it to me. I thought 'Wow, what a souvenir!"'

That gift sketch and its upshot proved memorable enough that Rusho told the story twice, once in his 1995 interview and again in an undated written statement, attached to his oral history as an appendix. (Both were published in 2008.) "As we were preparing to retire," he recalled, "John DeWitt told me, rather forcefully, 'All art objects produced by artists while being conducted by the Bureau of Reclamation Art Program are the property of the program itself. Please give me the sketch of Rainbow Bridge made by Norman Rockwell."' One can only imagine Rusho's face when DeWitt pulled rank on him that way. "I thought about telling DeWitt to jump in the lake, preferably from a high cliff, but as I was there at his invitation I meekly handed over the sketch. …

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