Art in Public Spaces

Before the New Deal, for the most part only wealthy Americans had access to art, typically because they collected or commissioned works that would then be installed in private spaces like their homes. But then, when New Deal programs supported the construction of public buildings all over the country, suddenly there were huge swathes of blank wall that badly needed decoration. In the form of sculptures, murals, and paintings, this was supplied by American artists who desperately needed jobs. Thousands of works of art became available to the general public thanks to the New Deal.

Newly constructed post offices became one of the most common "canvases" for New Deal art, supported by the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts (known simply as "the Section"), a program that was launched in 1934. By placing so much art in post offices, the government was in essence transforming a much-needed public and social space into the people's art galleries.

Typically, the New Deal murals in post offices built in that era and elsewhere are tame: they celebrate regional history, but in a formulaic, non-controversial way: hearty pioneers explore pristine land, healthy agricultural workers pick oranges, triumphant Revolutionary war heroes in the North ban slavery. Often, these murals were influenced by the European traditions of public art because many of the artists had traveled to Europe and seen firsthand the great murals of the Renaissance that showed how people lived in their own times. In the U.S., the New Deal murals were meant to be uplifting, carrying optimistic messages that reinforced American notions of hard work and noble causes.

But sometimes, as was the case with Coit Tower and Rincon Annex murals, the artists used the opportunity to openly and provocatively question the political and economic practices that they believed had created the misery that surrounded Americans at that time. Given that these works were paid for by the government, that meant that they were in some measure paid for by tax payers, and many people objected to the use of tax payers' money to critique the American way of life. By this thinking, any depiction of American history or the status quo that is inconsistent with American values should never be paid for with public money or on display in public spaces.

This tension between artistic freedom of expression and government support of the arts is still very much alive today. As New Deal scholar Gray Brechin says, "Who gets to decide what kind of art and what is depicted in public spaces has never been resolved in the United States, and probably never will be resolved."

As for the artists themselves who took those risks during the New Deal, art historian Tony Lee thinks that their efforts foundered to a certain degree. "Some of the really radical painters thought that this was a real moment to put their paintings into dialogue with political activism. Their paintings were not merely reflecting a set of experiences or practices on the street, but in fact would help promote those experiences or practices. For a lot of them, the murals failed in so far as they never actually produced the activism on the streets they had hoped, or the kind of response to their paintings that they had hoped."