Post Office Murals
On pgs. 1-3 of A Simple and Vital Design, The Story of the Indiana Post Office Murals by Thomas C. Carlisle Photoprapgy by Darryl
Jones (1995, Indiana Historical Society) We find how the murals came about and the process of design and approval of a mural for
a local post office:
The New Deal
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President in November, 1932, the Constitution still required a wait until the
following March before he could be inaugurated. However, once in office, he spearheaded a flood of legislation created to p ull the
country out of its economic doldrums through reorganization of the banking laws, financial assistance for farmers, and "pump
priming" projects designed to provide immediate employment for the millions whose jobs had been lost.
In the first weeks of the Roosevelt administration, a period now reffered to as the "100 days ", and "alphabet soup" of new agencies
and bureaus was created. The Public Works Administration (PWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Farm Credit Administration
(FCA), the Tennesse Valley Authoriyt (TVA), the Agric ultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), and the National Recovery Adminsitration
(NRA), - with its national symbol of hope, the Blue Eagle, which shopkeepers posted in their windows - all appeared between 9 March
and 16 June 1933...
Although the unemployed artists in the country at the beginning of the New Deal accounted for less than one percent of the total idle
work force, two of the new agencies, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA),
both directed by Harry Hopkins, did provide jobs for artists. When asked to justify creating jobs for this segment of the society,
whom most Americans had never considered to be "workers," Hopkins replied, "Hell, they've got to eat just like other people."
What most people did not realize was the federal government had been a "patron" of the arts for a long time usually through the
commissions for occasional murals and sc ulptures issued by the Supervising Architect of the Procurement Division of the Treasury.
For years the government had, supported the plastic arts in this way, but only indirectly did it support the artists.
The Public Works of Art Projects
On December 8, 1933, the Treasury Department's Advisory Committee on Fine Arts, along with its invited guests-Eleanor Roosevelt and
the directors of eight of the major art museums in the country met in the Washington D.C., home of Edward Bruce, the committee
secretary, to develop plans for the employment of artists. "The meetinf was called at one o'clock P.M. and lasted untill five o'clock
P.M., and by the time it was over The Public Works of Art Project was an actuality". The Civil Works Administration allocated
$1,039,000 for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) "under the Treasury Department as one of the agencies to extend relief to
the professional class, its object being to employ artists who were unemployed in the decoration of public buildings and parks".
When Hopkins committed CWA finds for work relief of artists, the logical administration location for those funds was the Treasury,
which had at least some experience in dealing with artists, and art cimmissions through the activities of the supervising architect.
under the program skilled artists and craftsmen wo uld be paid salaries ranging from $26.20 to $42.50 per week. However before they
could be hired they had to meet a "dual test" of eligibilty: "First that they were actually in need of employment, and second, that
they were qualified as artists to produce work which wo uld be ab embellishment to the publivc property"
Only four days after the Advisory Committee met, the first artists were hired as a part of the PWAP, directed by Edward Bruce. Both the
CWA and the PWAP were intended as temporary measures during the winter, with 15 February 1934 orginally set as the termination date
of the programs. The two month period proved the value of a program for artists, but it provided neither enough time to evaluate the
programs nor enough time for many of the artistic projects to be completed. Thus the PWAP funding was extended until 28 April 1934,
with a few artists later transferred briefly to another program just long enough to complete their projects.
The PWAP was controlled by sixteen regional committees, each with a prominent person from the arts commission as director, Indiana was
part of Region 9, headed by William Milliken, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Although the PWAP records in the National
Archives are sketchy as to names and locations of the artists employed, it is known that when the PWAP ended officially with the end of
fisical year on 30 June 1934, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan artists had been paid a total of $22,421.08 as wages from the
$25,226.23 allocated for Region 9. Nationally, almost four thousand artists received employment with 90 percent of the funding going
directly to the artists as wages.
Even with its short-lived duration, the PWAP proved that the need for financial support of artists existed and that such a large
program could be administred by the federal government. To key concerns that wo uld effect all later programs - relied and artistic
ability - did surface in those few weeks. What the PWAP did not provide was the answer to this problem. How could aid be provided
while rigid standards of artistic excellence were up held?
One of the concerns of the New Deal agencies was how to provide aid to needy persons while avoiding direct relief, that is, the dole,
which usually meant only small cash allotments plus food tickets. Although, as Ben Shahn said, such "humanitarian" assistance helped
the unfortunate individual or family, it did little to boost the economy and thereby put unemployed persons back to work when
businesses and factories reopened or returned to earlier levels of production. In addition, the psychological benefits of a job,
as opposed to the debilitating effects of the dole, wo uld provide a beneficial boost in the morale of a depressed nation.
When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in 1935, it created a Division of Profressional and Service Projects with
four programs: art, music, literature, and drama. The Federal Art Project (FAP) was the grogram designed to promote the production of
art and the participation in art events by persons not often exposed to such experieneces in order to bring about a positive change in
the public view of art...
...The FAP continued until 1942 when it became the Graphic Section of the War Services Board; all funding was terminated at the end of
the 1943 fiscal year.
The Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), also created in 1935 with funds from the WPA, functioned under the same employment guidlines as the
other WPA programsm: 90 precent of the workters were supposed to come from relief rolls, and the monthly wage was $69 to $103 for ninety-six
hours of work, with some persons allowed up to one hundred twenty hours. A master artist who emploued artists from the relief rolls as
assistants supervised each project. These TRAP teams executed murals and sc ultures for existing fedreal buildings and federal housing
projects. ...until funding was withdrawn at the end of fiscal year 1939...
Approximately four months after all funding was withdrawn from the PWAP in the summer of 1934, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of
the Treasury, issued a directive establishing a Section of Painting and Sc ulpture "to secure suitable art of the best quality for the
embellishment of public buildings".
Edward Bruce, who had directed the brief, somewhat experimental PWAP efforts, was chosen to head the new arts program, this one also
under the direction of the Treasury but without funding from the WPA and without the constraints arrached to the relief programs.
Bruce wanted to help in the dissemination of art throughout the country - such experiences wo uld raise the c ultural taste of
the citizens -... Bruce had "strong convictions about what could be called 'good' art, and artists who for the Treasury had to
meet his technical and aesthetic standards". Those standards, admirable though they were, precipitated much correspondence between
artists and the Washington office of the Section during the years of 1934 to 1943.
If Bruce and the other members of the Section staff were to achieve their goal of raising public taste through "exposure to
consistently good art," that art had to be in easily accessible locations. At that time, the Public Building Service, which was in
charge of all construction projects for the federal government, was located in the Treasury Department. One of the major construction
projects funded by the New Deal Congress included the erection of new post office buildings in many communities throughout the country.
Historically, the post office, whether in a large city or in a small town, has served as the most public of all public buildings.
Almost everyone visits this building occasionally, either-to pick up mail or purchase stamps or mail packages. On 2 November 1938 Edward
Bruce wrote to President Roosevelt:
With more than forty-five thousand post office in the country, and an estimated daily attendance of five hundred
in each, [this program will carry] out your dream of letting the simple people all over the county see at least one thing of
Art works such as murals or wall-mounted sc ulptures in the lobby of a post office wo uld be seen by practically all the residents of a
town at one time or another and could be seen repeatedly over the years. Although the Section did commission art for buildings other
than post offices, for example the combination Federal Courthouse and post office in Indianapolis and several office buildings in
Washington, D. C., its major effort was expended on work for post office lobbies. While both wall-mounted reliefs and freestanding
sc ulptures were commissioned, the overwhelming majority of the works is wall murals, usually mounted over the postmaster's door.
Thirty-seven mural commissions were executed for Hoosier post office, with thirty-six of them remaining today...
In view of the fact Bruce was given no official budget with which to pay artists, that art of any kind was produced is amazing, much
less the "quality" work he sought. Money for commissions to the artists came from the construction appropriations for the buildings.
The Section secured agreement from the Public Building Service that up to 1 percent of the cost of the building could be "reserved"
for payment to artists for "mbellishment". Not all new buildings had such reserves, but in today's world of cost overruns, the
fact that over thirteen hundred building projects for new post offices did have funds available is astounding.
This procedure of including the artistic costs in the construction budget also helped to protect the Section from the kind of
congressional criticism that was the bane of other programs...
Another protection against criticism, came with the artists selection procedure the Section used - a series of open competitions,
open to artists "born or residing in a locale, state, or region", to use the words of one Section press release. These regional or
sectional competitions were designed to comply with another of Secretary Morgenthau's original objectives, that of commissioning
local talent for the murals or sc ulptures "so far as consistent with a high standard of art..."
For Indiana almost one-half of the artists who received commissions - fourteen of twenty-nine - met those residency requirements...
On the other hand, if the building or the location warranted,that is, had an allocation of more then five thousand follars, the Section
wo uldd ignore "geographical limits" and conducted a national competition. All told, between 1934 and 1943, 190 state, regional, and
national competitions were held which involved 15,426 artists who submitted 40,426 sketches.
The most massive competition effort came from the "45-state Competition" in 1939. For this contest one post office in each state was selected,
with aritists invited to sumbmit designs for that particualr building...
Ironically, it was not a native-born artist's sketch ethat was chosen for Spencer, the Indiana post office designated for the
48-State Competition. In fact the winning design bby Joseph Meert, who lived in Kansas City, Kasas, was proposed by him for the
Seneca, Kansas, post office.
With approximately fourteen hundred buildings receiving Section-administered decorations in the nine-year period of its existence, a
contest could not be held for each building. Rather, when a typical competition was opened, the Section's announcement stated the
winner wo uld receive a commission for a specific building, while artists whose drawings received an honorable mention could receive
contracts for other, smaller buildings, usually in the same geographic area.
Artists submitted their sketches with their names in a sealed envelope attached tot he back of the drawinf; these works were
numbered as they arrived so that the winning work could be designated by number. Once all the anonymous sketches had been received,
either in Washington, or in the local post office, the selection jury wo uld gather to make its decisions. For the national
competitions nationally-known artists and sc ulptors were asked to serve on the juries, but for smaller competitions, those involving
artists in only three or four states, the jury often was composed of the postmaster, a representative of the architectural firm, and
other prominent citizens. Their selections plus the non-chosen sketches, with the unopened but-numbered envelopes still attached to
the canvases, were all sent to the Section's office in Washington, where the final choice was made by the Section staff. In only a
handf ul of cases did the Washington staff either question or reject the local selections, and when such rejection occured, it usually
invovled the two main contoversies of the mural program - "painting Section" amd "local chauvinism".
When the Section's B ulletin announced competitions, artists who wished to do so and who had developed a certain political savvy about
government-funded murals, wrote to the postmasters for information about the towns and their histories for leads in developing the
content of the sketches... if a local jury had twenty sketches from which to select and if ten of them favorably reflected the town's
history or its industrial and agric ultural development, town pride often dictated that the three or four sketches selected as winners
wo uld be from artists whose work wo uld reflect only the positive aspects or characteristics of of the town...
Those artists whose commissions came as a res ult of an honorable mention in a competition - and the overwhelming majority of
commissions came as a res ult of such runner-up status or in a few cases because of previously well-executed murals - developed murals
within the content guidelines, but the procedure they followed was, in some ways, more arduous than that followed by the winners.
The Section's invitation letter to an honorable mention winner, asking the artist to submit designs for a new mural, often contained
the suggestion that he or she go to the new location to talk with the postmaster and others about the history of the town, its
industrial/agric ultural base, or its local heroes. Whenever possible, most of the artists willingly made such visits, but for someone
living in Massachusetts or New York, such a visit to an Indiana location often was economically impossible...
Even if a trip to the site was impossible, the Section al least expected contact to be made with the postmaster for the appropriate
information. Once an artist had vistie a location or had corresponded with postmaster, two or three pencil sketches of pissible mural
designs were sent to the sectin. Only when one of the sketches has been approved by the Section could a formal commission be offered
to the artist, and many times artists had to resumbmit proposals or develope new proposals before satisfying the Section staff. With
the submission and approval of a color sketch drawn to two-inch scale, the artist was paid one-third of the contracted amount and
was told to submit cancas samples along with a list of the kind of oils or pempera paints that wo uld be used.
The the atrist could begin the next step, the preparation of a f ull-size "cartoon", that is, a pencil drawing on paper. Once an
8" by 10' photgraph of the cartoon was sumbmitted and approved, the artist was paid a second one-thrid installment. Approval of the
cartoon also meant the artist could begin the actual painting of the canvas.
Usually the Section also required photographs of the canvas when it was half finished.
Other times, especially in the cases of those who had done stisfactory work before, the artists went straight from cartoon to
completed canvas, but even for those experiecned persons final approval of the canvas was not given until another 8" by 10"
photograph of the work was sent off to Washington. Somewhere between the approval of the cartoon and the approval of the
photograph of the finished but not installed mural, the Section staff began the paperwork necessary to secure permission for the
artist to install the mural. Only after the Post Office Department had given such approval was the artist allowed to take the
canvas to the post office for attachement to the wall, and then only with a cement whose form ula had to be approved by the section.
Finally, when the artist sent still anothe 8" by 10" photograph, this time of the installed mural, and when the local postmaster
sent a letter the the Fourth Assistant Postmater General in Washington D.C., confirming the mural had been installed and was
satistactory, the artist was given the final one-third installement of the contract.
With all these lockstep proceural details and approvals required by the Section - a paperwork flow that often seems adverse to the
creative approach of an artist...Ironically, however, for the researcher today, without those nit-picking letters, and especially,
the 8" by 10" photographs, the stories of these murals could not bow be told...
Regardless of what happend to these artists in later years their work lives on in hundred of lobbies, still preforming a traditional
function of public art - portraying important stories of the towns and the townspoeple of the American scene, thereby celebrating
common c ultural aspirations and social values.