Legacy of FDR's public art program proves indelible

New Deal pumped millions into public art

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Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal turned the U.S. government into America's biggest art patron as it commissioned thousands of paintings, murals and sculptures throughout the country, including many in Western Pennsylvania.

This frenetic era plunged painters and sculptors into a white-hot cauldron of creativity, nurturing artists such as Grant Wood, Jackson Pollock, Malvina Hoffman and Alice Neel.

Overall, the government pumped nearly $5 million into making public art, or the equivalent of roughly $70 million in today's dollars.

While President Barack Obama's stimulus package is sending $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, most of that funding is designed to retain staff for arts groups and make up for lost funding from donors, instead of creating new art.

Pennsylvania's Council on the Arts will receive $359,200 from the NEA sometime before June 30, said the council's executive director, Philip Horn.

No stimulus package before or since the New Deal generated the torrent of art, music, literature and theatrical productions fueled by the need to put Americans back to work.

Many of the murals created in Western Pennsylvania during the 1930s and 1940s are still visible in three buildings on Grant Street and in post offices throughout the region.

Two of the most interesting art works hang in the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Downtown. Howard Cook's "Steel Industry" is in Courtroom No. 1; Stuyvesant Van Veen's "Pittsburgh Panorama" graces Courtroom No. 3.

Unfortunately, Kindred McLeary's mural, titled "Modern Justice," disappeared from Courtroom No. 2 some time before 1952, according to a 1978 article from The Pittsburgh Press. Painted on canvas and attached to the wall, the art work, which was 20 feet wide and 30 feet tall, had come loose several times, probably because of humidity.

U.S. District Judge Wallace S. Gourley was presiding over a trial when "Modern Justice" fell on him. Visibly irritated, the federal judge ordered that it be removed before the trial resumed.

Robert V. Barth, chief clerk of Western Pennsylvania's U.S. District Court, said that during renovations of the federal courthouse between 2003 and 2006, the building was searched thoroughly for the mural. On the theory that it had been painted over, a work crew went behind the judge's bench and removed plaster to look for it but found nothing, Mr. Barth said. U.S. Treasury Department records, he added, indicate that the mural was destroyed.

In the City-County Building on the seventh floor hangs a mural called "Justice" that was finished in 1940 by Harry Scheuch, a prominent prize-winning artist who headed the Federal Art Project here from 1937 to 1940. Instead of showing the traditional figure of Justice -- a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales -- Mr. Scheuch painted a muscular man with his eyes open.

In a 1952 interview with The Pittsburgh Press, the artist explained his reasoning behind the mural's central figure.

"That blindfold conception is hackneyed," he said, adding "Judges and juries aren't blindfolded, why blindfold Justice?"

The mural, which is 36 feet wide and 9 feet tall, was damaged last year by a leak in the ceiling of the courtroom occupied by Judge Timothy Patrick O'Reilly.

Jurors who sit in that courtroom invariably ask about the art work, said Ed Jenkins, the judge's deputy. Mr. Jenkins' favorite character in the scene is a red-haired boy perched on his mother's shoulder.

Vincent Nesbert had more on his mind as he worked on the second floor of the Allegheny County Courthouse, where he spent six years painting five murals: "Industry," "Justice," "Peace," "Fort Duquesne" and "The Battle of Grant's Hill." He finished the works in 1940.

Mr. Nesbert, who died in 1976, served as dean of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. More than a decade after his death, art conservator Christine Daulton spent six weeks cleaning and restoring the murals with a team of artists.

"There was a lot of surface dirt," Ms. Daulton recalled. "They were almost monochromatic because of all the dirt and the varnish. It was so exciting to see all these colors coming out. People would stand on the balconies and watch us while we were working and ask questions and make comments."

Although Ms. Daulton had visited the Allegheny County Courthouse twice before being hired for the job, "I didn't even notice the murals were in there. It was very dimly lit," she recalled.

Within the past decade, she also restored the mural in the Squirrel Hill post office. Before she began work, Ms. Daulton stood on scaffolding to evaluate it.

In the left corner of an urban street scene that still conveys the bustling, diverse neighborhood, two women talk while one pushes a baby carriage.

"As I started to clean the baby, I saw that the baby was wearing a pink dress. That was the big exciting moment. I said, 'Oh, it's a girl,' " she said.

One local academic believes Pittsburgh's public schools, universities, libraries, jails, hospitals and housing projects may hold a trove of New Deal art just waiting to be rediscovered, interpreted and preserved.

If Chicago's recent experience of finding and restoring 437 New Deal murals in 68 public schools is any guide, said Sylvia Rhor, assistant professor of fine art at Carlow University, there may be lost treasures in Pittsburgh, too.

In Chicago, many murals had been painted over, packed away in basements or taken home by art teachers. Once the murals were found and restored, Dr. Rhor said, students learned a great deal and took tremendous pride in the art work.

"The kids got so excited about this and became more invested in their schools," she said.


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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