Opening on Feb. 22, 2020, Tacoma Art Museum will present “Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s.” During the economic hard times of the 1930s, U.S. government art projects under the WPA and other agencies created a wealth of public art and supported art communities across the country. In the Northwest hundreds of artists were employed and thousands of artworks created but their stories are almost unknown. The exhibition will offer an extensive overview of the bounty and variety of work created in our region and bring forgotten treasures back to view.
“The extent of the federal art projects in the Northwest is surprising,” said Margaret Bullock, TAM’s interim chief curator and curator of collections and special exhibitions. “We’ve long thought that the impact of the work was limited but, research has now shown that the projects in the Northwest were widespread and highly productive employing over 600 artists resulting in thousands of artworks and offering art making opportunities to hundreds of thousands of Northwesterners.”
TAM’s exhibition brings together a wide variety of the artworks created in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. It reintroduces a number of talented figures whose names are now unknown, and also includes early work by prominent figures (like Morris Graves and photographer Minor White). The exhibition also surveys the subjects, styles, and media employed by Northwest project artists.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration launched a number of programs designed to put the millions of Americans who were unemployed back to work. Artists who worked for the federal art programs and projects created a wide variety of artwork for public institutions such as schools, universities, post offices, and hospitals as well as government buildings of all kinds. In addition, the government also established community art centers, which offered free classes, art making opportunities and traveling exhibitions.
“TAM is fortunate to be able to exhibit a number of works that have not been seen since their creation and also to borrow several large-scale murals that normally never leave their permanent locations in schools and post offices,” noted Bullock. “For our region, this exhibition is a celebration of a time when government support for art and artists not only nurtured talent but made long-lasting impacts on the art community and raised the importance of public art in a way that has yet to be matched.”
TAM will be publishing an accompanying catalogue “New Deal Art in the Northwest: The WPA and Beyond,” the first comprehensive survey of the federal art projects in the Pacific Northwest, authored by Bullock with contributions by notable New Deal art scholars.