New Deal brought new art to city

Murals grace the walls of buildings around the Elm City such as the New Haven Public Library and the First Church of Christ, but a more concentrated display of the city’s artwork can be seen at a new exhibit at the New Haven Museum & Historical Society.

A new exhibit at the museum on Whitney Avenue that opened to the public on Friday, “The Federal Art Project in New Haven: The Era, Art, & Legacy,” showcases the project’s artistic effects on the Elm City during President’s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Pieces and artists showcased at the exhibit were chosen to reflect many aspects of this period in New Haven’s history, said Bill Hosley, the museum’s executive director.

Like most cities in the country, New Haven was not impervious to the effects of the Great Depression. Local factory production declined, deficits led to cuts in municipal departments and 12,000 people were registered unemployed. According to the exhibit, though Yale’s mass building projects and a short revitalization during the Elm City’s 300th anniversary in the 1930s aided the local economy, it wasn’t until the establishment of the New Deal that the city began to show signs of improvement. Included in the New Deal’s provisions was the Federal Art Project, a division of the Public Works of Art Project, which created job opportunities for unemployed artists while giving communities a chance to display their history through art and engender civic patriotism, the exhibit said.

Though the immediate goal of the Public Works of Art Project was to provide jobs, it had a deeper symbolic meaning, the museum’s curator Amy Trout said. The project brought art to the community through public spaces such as schools, libraries and city halls, and one of the museum’s aims mirrors this philosophy, Trout said.

“Our goal is of course to draw people to the museum,” Trout said. “But it is also important for our exhibits to encourage people to look out into the community — in this case, to seek out the murals extant throughout the city.”

Though the PWAP led to an outpouring of easel paintings, sculptures, posters, educational materials, signs and stained glass, the exhibit focuses on the murals created for the project. Most are in the style of “American Scene,” or art that relayed the experience and goals of the American people, the exhibit said. Accordingly, the exhibit’s murals cover themes of industrialization, government and citizenship, learning and literature, and colonial New Haven.

The murals on display have all benefited from professional restoration in recent years, Trout said, but the evidence of the local achievements of the Federal Art Project have dwindled over time. Many murals have deteriorated and bas reliefs have been lost, she said. The majority of the pieces displayed in the exhibit are photographs and reproductions of the original works.

Sophia Emigh — who works with the Team Service Project, a year-long community service effort aimed at getting New Haven youth to create an antiviolence mural within the city — said she appreciated the exhibit’s material, but was not as pleased with the accessibility of the artwork it features.

“The exhibit is targeted mostly at an older generation.” said Emigh, who attended the exhibit Thursday. “And it’s unfortunate that most of the murals in New Haven are largely inaccessible to the public who really needs to see them.”

The exhibit does include several original preliminary sketches and watercolors, but the centerpiece of the exhibit is Laicita Worden Gregg’s 1939 mural “Planning the Escape of Geoff and Whalley,” the only full size mural included in the exhibit. Formerly installed in the Woolsey School in Fair Haven, it relays the legend of Colonels Edward Whalley and William Goffe. The men hid in a cave to escape the threats of British king Charles II, who was seeking revenge for the death of his father.

Trout said the archives of the museum’s Whitney Library hold one of the only significant collections of Federal Art Project documents relating to New Haven and that the majority of the collection belongs to the museum itself. The chief exception of this is the portrait of John William Murphy, mayor of the Elm City when the New Deal was put into action, which is on loan from the city of New Haven, she said.

The exhibit is on display until September 2007 and admission is $2 for students. The New Haven Museum & Historical Society is located at 114 Whitney Ave.

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