Monday 21 April 2014

U.S. Federal Government Seeks Return of New Deal Artworks

Recovered Artwork: L. Lavelle, House on the Hill

During the Great Depression the U.S. government enacted many federal programs to aid the public by creating jobs for unemployed Americans, all part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.  Among them were programs developed specifically for artists and writers.  Under the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project artists earned $42 each week for creating art that documented the nation, and these works became the property of the federal government. The pieces were displayed in libraries, courthouses, and other public facilities.  It is estimated that as many as ten thousands artists participated in the program, generating hundreds of thousands of artworks.  Since the 1930's and 40's however, many of the works have been misplaced, lost, or stolen.  WPA Paintings and sculptures are now scattered across the United States, turning up at garage sales, antique shows, online, and on the auction block. Many of the works bear a marking indicating that they were produced under the federal program, however not everyone handling the works understands that such labels still carry meaning as to the ownership of the pieces.

Acknowledging not just the fact that the government "owns" the works, but that the works are integrally important to the artistic and cultural history of the United States, since 2001 the federal government has mounted efforts to verify and recover the works.  The Government Services Administration in cooperation with other federal agencies including the FBI, continue to monitor and investigate, having established means for the public to call or email with reports of possible WPA artworks.  The program continues to gain momentum and will remain in effect until all the works are accounted for.  In 2011 the GSA produced a short documentary film regarding its efforts that is available to watch here.  The film includes images of recovered works and interviews with possessors (those who had WPA artworks in their possession).  One aspect of the recovery effort that is particularly interesting is the cooperation between the government and those possessing the works to find a mutually agreeable place for public display.  Indeed as one government interviewee stated of recovered artworks, "It doesn't belong in a federal warehouse anymore than it belongs in a private collection."

The GSA's recovery efforts were also recently covered by NPR's All Things Considered, and a brief audio piece is available here.

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