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 questionnaire is provided for information only to conservator-bidders along with GSAs standardized conservation contract. After the conservation contract has been awarded, GSA encourages continuous dialogue, whenever possible, between the artist and conservator.

    The completed questionnaire, however, is not always the last word in choosing a conservation treatment. For instance, the treatment and maintenance suggested by the artist are not always satisfactory because the artist may be unfamiliar with conservation principles and practices. Also, the questionnaire does not address environmental conditions or safeguards in public spaces. GSA is aware that art in public places-as opposed to that in museum

  • 186 Documenting Twentieth Century American Art

    GSA Art-in-Architecture Artists Questionnaire

    Artist :

    Title of Work:


    loo BAT COLUMN

    Completion Date: 12 April, 1977



    S.S. Bldg, Great Lakes Program Center, Chicago, Illinois

    height x width x depth in feet and inches

    100 8 x 9 9 (top diam.) x 54 (bottom diam)

    Weight: 40 000 pounds

    Construction, composition of the work (for the following, please use dates, methods and products used):

    1. Materials (kind, variety, quality; preparatory work, joining of blocks, hollowing out, etc.). Execution-materials consist of car-ten steel and aluminium assembled as a welded construction in one piece.

    2. Medium or construction (description of assemblages, materials and methods). Materials-primarily YE x 3 car-ten bar, 2 square car-ten tubing and cast aluminium segments for the knob.

    Exterior surface is made up of 24 vertical bars. Inner structure consists of 2 square car-ten steel tubing. Knob

    at base consists of 24 cast aluminium sections welded together.


    Foundation provided by others

    Medium: Ground (preparation of surface before painting, etc; adhesion, cohesion)

    Entire sculpture was sandblasted, primed and painted, using a urethane paint system.

    Paint layer:

    The sculpture has three coats of paint. The paint used was specially mixed by Sherwin-Williams, using the

    following formula:


    7 % parts of #F63A13 7B Polane Gray

    3 parts of #F63B13 Polane Static Black

    2 parts of # F63Tl Polane Flatting Base

    16 oz. of #F63RB8 Polane Red

    3. General recommendations for care and maintenance. The BAT COLUMN should be painted on a 3 to 6 year basis. A judgment must be made as to when the

    general condition and appearance of the surface dictates repainting. The frequency of complete painting can be

    extended by touch-up maintenance on a 3 to 4 month schedule.

    Figure 1

    environments-is not well protected from such environmental factors as air pollution, light, humidity and temperature variations. In addition, circulation of the public around the artwork sometimes leads to physical contact with the artwork, such as touching and, in extreme cases,


    vandalism. Therefore, GSA does ask the artist about the stability of his or her materials and their future behavior in a public location, and requests recommendations for environmental safeguards and security measures. GSA introduces the topics when the artist submits a concept for review and approval by the Design Review Panel before proceeding with the final work; and, again, during its execution and installation.

    GSAs comprehensive approach to conservation documentation also includes the maintenance of copies of GSAs standardized conservation contract incorporating the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, examination reports, treatment records and photographic documentation. Archivally sound, 8 inches by 10 inches, both black-and-white and color photographs are required before, during and after conservation treatment. In addition, artists contracts, artists correspondence, and bibliographic and biographic information are maintained.


    Recently, GSA has developed the requirements for a computerized information system about 101 000 artworks, 10 000 artists and loans of the artwork. The system, called FEDART, combines the features of an information retrieval system and a management information system, providing IR and MIS support. It contains conservation information that can be queried by condition code, last conservation treatment date(s), conservation treatment description(s), last conservation inspection date and next scheduled conservation inspection. The condition code details whether or not an artwork is in urgent need of conservation services.

    Along with such data as accession number, title, artist, fabricator, printer, Federal Art Program, signature(s), signature date, dimensions, weight and description of the artwork, data can be queried by object class and physical index terms. The object class groups federal artworks with similar characteristics. For instance, the object classes are painting, sculpture, drawing, print, photomechanical, textile, construction and minor arts. The object class painting is subdivided into mural, easel, miniature, etc.; minor arts can be glass, ceramic, skin, fur and leather....


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