New Deal Art and Architecture

Local Industry, U.S. Mail (oil on canvas); location-Norristown Post Office 

Local Industry, U.S. Mail (oil on canvas); location-Norristown Post Office;
artist-Paul Mays, 1936; photo-Michael Mutmansky

New Deal-era sculptureBackground
As part of the New Deal effort to stimulate the economy, the federal government embarked on a massive program of public works construction. Across the country thousands of post offices, courthouses, bridges, and dams were built. The most visible and ubiquitous of these facilities were the post offices. The Treasury Department, which appropriated the funds for all federal construction, also designed most of these projects through its Office of the Supervising Architect. One percent of the appropriated funds was reserved for "embellishment" in the form of murals or sculpture. The Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts (known simply as the Section), formed at the beginning of the New Deal, invited artists to enter national competitions for large post offices around the country; runners-up were offered commissions for smaller post offices. The artworks were expected to reflect the town's heritage in some way. Popular subjects included local industry, agriculture, and history. Artists were expected to travel to their assigned post offices, meet with the post master and other residents (often a local historian or librarian) and generate several ideas for subject matter. After a sketch was approved by the Section's administrators, the artist could proceed to create his or her artwork.

The Section was active from 1934 to 1943. During this time, Pennsylvania received 94 commissions for murals and sculpture for federal buildings (88 post offices, 5 courthouses, 1 customs house). Nationwide, 80% of post office artworks are murals and 20% are sculpture. In Pennsylvania, almost half of our artworks are sculpture, giving Pennsylvania the most sculpture of any state, and the second largest collection of both murals and sculpture in the country. The artworks were distributed across the state in urban and rural locations.

New Deal-era sculptureThe Artists
Unlike the arts programs of the Works Projects Administration (WPA), the Section was not a relief program and commissions were merit based. The Section administrators were enthusiastic supporters of American art and hoped to create a uniquely American art via the mural program. Artists were requested to work in the "American Scene" style. The Section only vaguely defined this term, suggesting a straightforward realism portraying subjects easily recognizable by every American. Allegorical or symbolic paintings, abstraction and European-style modernism were forbidden. The Midwestern Regionalists like Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry were championed as exemplars of the American Scene and many post office murals resemble the Regionalists' work.

A variety of artists worked on Treasury Department projects. Some were well-known artists with national reputations. Others were just beginning their artistic careers. Often a post office commission was an artist's first opportunity to create a public work of art.

Featured Artwork and Post Offices in this Survey

Nine post offices have been selected for this survey:

New Deal-era bronze plateThese nine are located across the state in both cities and small towns and their artworks represent the major themes of industry, agriculture, and history. The murals and sculptures are displayed in active post office facilities and may be viewed by the public during regular business hours. With the exceptions of Belle Vernon and Union City, all artworks remain in the post office buildings for which they were created. Whenever possible, color photographs have been provided, black and white images have been used for the others.

 

Special Limited Edition Exhibition Poster
A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania's New Deal Post Office Murals

Common Canvas poster

Capture and bring a piece of this heritage into your home or office with the purchase of this special poster. The poster features the artwork "Steel Industry" by Howard Norton Cook, 1936. This mural currently resides in the United States Post Office & Courthouse, Pittsburgh, Pa., and is provided courtesy of the General Services Administration, Fine Arts Program.

This poster is a true work of art. Designed by The State Museum of Pennsylvania, the highest quality standards of production have been maintained. Produced with high-resolution, full-color printing inks with a layer of protective varnish and printed on heavy poster stock, each poster is rolled and mailed in an oversized sealed mailing tube with end caps. The poster is 18" x 24" and perfectly sized for conventional ready-made frames.

Learn more at PAbookstore.com


New deal footer