Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943

Article excerpt

Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Em Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943. By Heather Becker. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002. Pp. 248. Index. Paper, $29.95).

The book tells the history of two artistic projects, separated by more than sixty years. First, the book documents the Progressive Era and New Deal programs that resulted in hundreds of murals displayed in Chicago public school classrooms, auditoriums, and hallways. Originally appreciated for their aesthetic, cultural, and educational value, now more than 430 extant murals reflect the social, artistic, and political values of the eras in which they were produced and the artists who produced them. In the early twentieth century, Progressive Era murals were considered one way to improve the conditions of schools. In addition to adding decoration, the murals served as textbooks, teaching Chicago's diverse school population the importance of patriotism, internationalism, conservation, reform, and industrial progress.

During the 1930s, the mural programs continued under the aegis of the Federal Arts Program of the Works Progress Administration (WPA/FAP). More broadly conceived than the Progressive Era initiative, the New Deal program aimed to create jobs for unemployed artists and to make art accessible to and appreciated by all citizens. By placing murals in public buildings, through fostering art education, and creating artwork that was accessible in content and style, the New Deal program suggested that Americans needed both cultural and material relief and recovery. The Illinois Art Project became one of the country's largest state WPA/FAP programs, hiring nearly 800 artists and resulting in thousands of murals, paintings, sculptures, and posters.

Art for the People relates this history through numerous, lavish illustrations, scholarly essays, and first-hand reflections about the production and impact of the murals. The book describes each extant mural, noting its current condition, location, and creator. In presenting this information, accompanied by many visual images, the book operates to preserve the murals and thereby ensure a lasting record of the murals created during these earlier periods. Essays place the murals into artistic and historical context, describing the stylistic trends and political impulses reflected in the arts programs. Artists employed in the New Deal programs, including Studs Terkel who relates his experiences in the Federal Theater Program, remembers how their participation affected their subsequent professional and personal lives. Although these essays sometimes overlap, leading to a repetition of material, they nonetheless offer many diverse ways to understand the New Deal and Progressive Era arts programs and their local and national significance. …

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