Documenting twentieth century American art under the jurisdiction of the General Services Administration

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  • The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship ( 198 5). 4, 18 3 - 18 8

    Documenting Twentieth Century American Art under the Jurisdiction of the General Services Administration


    The US General Services Administration (GSA), through its Public Buildings Service, is responsible for the care and preservation of about 10 1 000 works of federal art. To satisfy agency needs as well as demands from curators, conservators, scientists, and other museum and conservation professionals for quick access to conservation documentation for individual works of art, GSA maintains comprehensive conservation documentation. Permanent files are maintained in GSAs central office located in Washington, DC. In addition, copies of conservation documentation for artworks commissioned by GSAs Art-in-Architecture Program are kept in GSAs regional and local offices. Federal art under GSAs jurisdiction consists of approximately 100 000 objects produced during the New Deal programs of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era 19 3 3 - 1943 ; over 200 American works of art commissioned by GSAs Art-in-Architecture Program from 1962 to the present; and artworks associated with historic federal structures, such as Daniel Chester Frenchs sculpture for the New York Custom House. These federal artworks are dispersed nationwide in public buildings, museums, schools, colleges, libraries, hospitals and prisons.

    Historical Background

    US Government support for the arts is a matter of long-standing tradition. Between Presidents Jefferson and Jackson, successful efforts were made to incorporate artwork as part of the architectural design for such federal structures as the nations Capitol and Treasury building. As early as 18 17, Congress commissioned John Trumbull to depict four Revolutionary subjects in paintings for the rotunda of the new Capitol in Washington, DC. Trumbull was to receive $3 2 000 for his creations. Another major financial and artistic commission was awarded to Horatio Greenough for his full-length statue of George Washington for the rotunda of the US Capitol. Greenoughs marble work, executed between 18 3 3- 184 1, was to be the first important commission of sculpture awarded to a native American artist. He was paid $5000. In 1855, when Congress decided to decorate the interiors of the Capitol with artwork, it commissioned Constantino Brumidi to paint frescoes for the House of Representatives Committee rooms. He was paid $8 .OO a day. In between, he worked on a real fresco painted on fresh mortar in the eye of the Capitol dome. His work, which took three years to complete, covered 4464 square feet of concave surface 180 feet above the floor. His commission-$40000-was the largest of its kind to that day.

    0260.4779/85/02 0183-06 SO3.00 @ 1985 Butterworth & Co (Publishers) Ltd

  • 184 Documenting Twentieth Century American Art

    New Deal Art Programs

    In December 19 3 3, with funds from the emergency Civil Works Administration (CWA), a new program was created, under Treasury Department auspices. Called the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), and operating through sixteen regional centers, its purpose was to employ needy artists in the decoration of public buildings and parks at weekly salaries. For a total project cost of $1 3 12 177, the government received 15 66 3 completed works in many media, by over 3500 artists, which were allocated to orphanages, public libraries and various local public buildings. Although PWAP came to an early end in April 1934, it provided the precedent for the Treasury Departments Section of Painting and Sculpture. Established in October 19 34, its purpose was to secure suitable paintings and sculpture for public buildings (Federal) and to stimulate the development of art in the country. Mainly through open and anonymous competitions, murals and sculpture were produced for over 1400 new Post Offices and Courthouses which were being constructed nationwide by the Treasury Department. Approximately 1 per cent of the construction cost was set aside for the artworks. Four years after the beginning of the first Section, the name was changed to the Section of Fine Arts to become a permanent part of the Treasury to continue and further the activities of its predecessor. The Section was transferred in July 19 3 9 to the new Federal Works Agency.

    The Treasury Relief AK Project (TRAP) was another Treasury-administered program. Beginning in July 1935, with money from the Works Progress Administration, SO0 unemployed artists or 90 per cent of the labor coming from the relief rolls, were employed to produce artworks for 1900 buildings. Later, 25 per cent were non-relief artists employed as master painters who would execute murals with assistants taken off the TRAP relief rolls.

    Indeed, the 19 30s were to give birth to a profusion of art projects. With the deepening of the Depression, by far the largest impetus in support of artists came with the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) art programs. Beginning in August 193 5, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration ~AP/WPA) paid salaries to artists, working in all media, for a specified number of hours per month. Each artist was free to create what he or she pleased, which allowed such young artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Isabel Bishop to experiment and seek newer avenues of expression. This freedom provided the forces by which American art was to have its major impact on the art world. Many notable American artists of the 1950s and 1960s were sustained and nurtured by the WPA art programs.

    In September 19 39, the FPA/WPA was transferred to the Works Progress Administrations newly formed Federal Works Agency and operated at the state level through 2 5 per cent funding by local sponsors. Employment was limited to 18 months, but participants could reapply after 30 days by going through the entire relief application procedure. During this period, the WPA Art Programs apparently began to decline. By January 1943, the WPA projects ceased to function and by 1 July had ended completely.

    New Deal Documentation

    For federally supported New Deal artwork of 193 3-l 943, GSA maintains conservation documentation filed by artist and building. GSAs original mandate for documenting and preserving the surviving works of art of this period came directly from the Federal Property and Administration Services Act of 1949 which established GSA and, in the process, transferred to the Agency all records, property, personnel obligations, and commitments of the Federal Works Agency (FWA). As mentioned above, those agencies of the former Federal Works


    Agency include the Public Works of Art Project, the Section of Fine Arts, the Treasury Relief Art Project, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, and the Art Program of the Works Projects Administration.

    Original conservation documentation includes the Treasury Departments Te~~i~a~ Bu~~etins which contain technical advice to artists especially on painting materials and processes. Artists questionnaires of the era are also preserved. The files have been invaluable in GSAs continuing efforts to examine, restore and preserve the surviving works of art of this period. They have also been used by researchers from the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, W~hin~on, DC, which is the official depository of New Deal art retrieved by GSA, and from other museums and institutions where artworks produced by the programs are dispiayed or on loan.

    Art-in-Architecture Program

    The 1960s ushered in still another era of government-sponsored art. Inspired by the support of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, the arts assumed the importance of national policy with the acceptance in 1962 of recommendations by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space. The committees report, Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture, recommended that Where appropriate, fine arts should be incorporated in the design of Federal buildings, with emphasis on work by living American artists. Underscoring support for the tine arts, a new GSA policy directed that one-half of 1 per cent of construction costs for federal buildings be allocated for works of art. As the federal agency responsible for the design and construction of most government buildings, GSA initiated an art-in-architecture program in 1962 to implement the policies of the Ad Hoc Committee. In the ensuing four years, no fewer than 44 works of art were commissioned by GSA for new federal buildings. Increased costs of construction, labor and materials put such a strain on the budget for the fine arts program, which is funded through the construction budget, that its operations came to a complete halt in 1966. Six years later, the program was back in action with renewed vigor. It continues with that vigor today. GSA has so far commissioned over 200 works of art throughout the country. They include paintings, sculpture, photographs, tapestries, craftworks and stained glass.

    Art-in-Architecture Questionnaire

    Each artist commissioned by GSAs Art-in-Architecture Program has been requested to complete a standardized artists questionnaire after the artwork is installed. The new form, designed in 1980, requests information about artists materials and recommendations for future care, maintenance and treatment. The same questionnaire is used for painting, sculpture, photographs, tapestries, craftworks and stained glass. The completed questionnaire aids in determining the original physical nature of the artwork and-by comparison-its present state, its deterioration, and its need for conservation treatment or maintenance (Figure 1). In addition, during contract negotiations, a copy of the completed questionn