WESTERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY RIVERFRONT CAMPUS: A New Deal for WIU
Western Illinois University Riverfront Campus recently issued the following announcement.
During the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s and into the early years of World War II, the federal government supported the arts in unprecedented ways through the Federal Art Project (FAP), also known as the New Deal art project. For 11 years, between 1933 and 1943, federal tax dollars employed artists, musicians, actors, writers, photographers and dancers.
According to the National Archives, while the New Deal arts projects provided work for jobless artists, they also had a larger mission: to promote American art and culture and to give more Americans access to what President Franklin Roosevelt described as "an abundant life." The projects saved thousands of artists from poverty and despair and enabled Americans across the country to see an original painting for the first time, attend their first professional live theater event, or take their first music or drawing class. But the arts projects also sparked controversy. Some politicians believed them to be wasteful propaganda and wanted them ended; others wanted them expanded. Such controversy, along with the United States' entry into World War II, eventually ended the projects.
But much of what they fashioned has survived through the efforts of museums, libraries, and archives, including Western Illinois University's Art Gallery.
Through this project, WIU, then Western Illinois State Teachers College, received nearly $1 million from a variety of New Deal agencies to help with various projects. Former WIU President Walter P. Morgan and former WIU Art Department Chair Polly Pottle helped navigate the New Deal programs, including helping commission murals and artwork for public spaces on campus.
The WIU collection contains works by 27 artists, including Gertrude Abercrombie, Macena Barton, Aaron Bohrod, Howard Brown, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Gregory Orloff, Romolo Roberti, Charles Turzak and Ellsworth Young, among others. The WIU collection also includes portraits by J. Theodore Johnson of President Morgan and Samuel B. Hursh, Western's first teacher of English literature and grammar.
According to WIU Art Gallery Director Tyler Hennings ‘99, Western's New Deal collection reflects a number of themes that were prevalent in the federal art projects, especially American Scene images of rural farms in the Midwest. However, the collection is also unique in that it showcases the thematic and stylistic diversity of federal art produced in the 1930s.
"Many of these art works also reflect the school's close relationship to the surrounding rural community of Macomb and McDonough County," Knox College Art Professor and Director of the Art History Program Gregory Gilbert said during a January 2014 exhibition of the WIU-owned works. "Themes of rural farms and industry in the Midwest were highly relevant to the surrounding region when many farmers and manufacturers were struggling financially during the Depression, receiving much needed support from federal agencies like the WPA and the Farm Security Administration. The installation of art on campus was in keeping with the institution's progressive support of art within higher education."
Prior to the 2014 exhibition of works housed at WIU, conservation work needed to be completed on several pieces in the collection. That work was done in 2013 by The Conservation Center in Chicago, with help from the fundraising campaign where interested patrons could sponsor the cost of restoring an individual piece of work.
"We were so pleased to see many works in this important collection of the University Art Gallery conserved and shared," said Vice President for Advancement and Public Service Brad Bainter '79 MS '83.
Conservation treatment ranged between $500 and $4,000 per work. Since that time, some of the pieces, including Motley's piece, "Jazz Singers" (1934 oil on canvas), have been featured in exhibitions around the world, including Spain. The WIU-owned Motley piece will soon be featured in an upcoming exhibition at the Governor's mansion in Springfield, IL.
"This collection is important because of its place in history. The collection features many prominent Illinois artists and a diverse range of styles and subject matter," Hennings added. "The collection provides students the opportunity to learn about this period through an original source of information."
The University's Art Gallery, located just north of Sherman Hall, is open from 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m., Monday-Friday and 1-4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free.
Original source can be found here.