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As everyone knows, there was serious unemployment when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, so, in collaboration with Congress, he had the government hire people to create work that continues to benefit us —  roads and parks, for example, and fine art.

Unfortunately, some murals and sculptures from the 1930s and 1940s have been lost, so the search is on to reclaim it.

Matthew Blitz at Atlas Obscura has the story. “The United States government wants its art back. Special Agent Eric Radwick, who works in the Office of Investigations for the General Service Administration’s Office of the Inspector General, is working to do just that — to locate and recover government-owned long-lost artwork of the New Deal-era federal arts programs. It could be hidden in plain sight.

“It could be in grandma’s attic. It could be in the possession of art collectors. No matter if it was found in the trash or cost a few grand, the art is federal property. … Most people, upon realizing they are in possession of federal property, are cooperative. …

“On May 9th, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt received a rather curious letter from an old classmate and professional artist George Biddle. Since his March inauguration, President Roosevelt had implemented the most aggressive 100 days agenda in the country’s history in hopes of solving the Great Depression.

“While absurdly busy — he had just delivered his second Fireside Chat and was about to sign both the Farm Relief and Unemployment Relief bills — this note gave him pause. In it, Biddle wrote that he had long admired the Mexican government for paying artists ‘plumbers’ wages’ to paint murals on government buildings expressing Mexican ideals. Perhaps the President should consider something similar in the United States? …

“The letter got the President’s attention. A month later, Biddle met with members of FDR’s administration in Washington about his proposal. By the end of 1933, the first national art relief program — the Public Works of Art Project — was established.

“Over the next decade, the American art scene flourished thanks to the financial encouragement of the government. According to Smithsonian Magazine, in the first four months of 1934 alone, nearly 4,000 artists were hired to produce over 15,000 paintings, murals, sculptures and other works of art for federal buildings across the country. In 1935, the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project was established, the largest of these programs both in scope and number of artists employed. …

“At a time of crisis in America, these programs not only provided an enormous collection of artwork for public consumption, but gave the creators a sense that they were needed. ‘It made them feel like they counted,’ says Virginia M. Mecklenburg, Chief Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”

Oh, my, what an enlightened federal government! Sometimes one hopes for history to repeat itself.

Read about the challenges of tracking down missing federal artwork at Atlas Obscura, here.

Once upon a time, when the federal government was concerned about unemployment, it paid people to work, artists included. That’s why many murals appeared in post offices and other government buildings in the 1930s and 1940s. This post office mural by Charles Anton Kaeselau depicts the shot heard ’round the world at Concord’s North Bridge.

042617-Kaeselau-North-Bridge-mural

042617-Kaeselau-North-Bridge-mural

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