Exhibition work: labor networks in the Federal Community Art Center Project
Sara - thank you - this was such a well-articulated and interesting paper! I really appreciated your focus on labour networks and all the unacknowledged work and collaborations that go on within exhibition-making, including, for example, the work of gallery attendants and your uncovering of the working backgrounds of staff. I was so struck, particularly given your focus on labour and how far travelling shows would evidently have had to travel across the US, by how short-lived these exhibitions were, only staying in situ for two weeks. Why was this the case, do you think? I was intrigued by your images of the Roswell site - particularly the Spanish revival furniture and the performance stage - and by how different this architecture was from models of classical gallery architecture. Do you know what the thinking was behind these particular architectural forms?
Thanks again and all best, Harriet
Hi Harriet, and thanks so much for watching my video!
Those are both great questions. Regarding the short turnaround time, I think the main impetus was to get as much art out there as quickly as possible, especially since a lot of the shows featured FAP artists. With the solo exhibitions especially, the exhibit texts and promotional materials emphasize the importance of artist exposure and introducing their work to different audiences. One of the aims of the Community Art Center Project was to get visitors to see themselves as potential art consumers as well as appreciators (Victoria Grieve discusses the intersection between education and consumerism in The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture), and eventually buy art of their own. Having a variety of works on view likely encouraged not only repeat visitation from locals and tourists, but encouraged viewers to imagine what these different works might look like in their homes, which styles they preferred, etc.
That's how I understand it, though as a curator, that schedule sounds exhausting to me, even if the works are arriving framed, etc.
As for the Roswell Museum's architecture, that's an interesting story that I didn't have time to talk about in the video, so I'm glad you asked. The Roswell Museum, from what I understand of its early history, wasn't conceptualized as a federal community art center at all. The Chaves County Archaeological and Historical Society had initially only asked the FAP for money to construct a building for their collection of historical artifacts. The plan was to establish a collections-based museum highlighting Roswell's history and archaeology, so from the outset, the Roswell Museum is a little unusual as far as federal community art centers go because it was designed expressly as a museum, rather than a commercial or private building retrofitted as a gallery. Regarding the Spanish Colonial Revival style, Frank Standhardt was probably looking at similar examples in Santa Fe, and more broadly playing into ideas of historical revivalism that was popular in a lot of New Deal-era art and architecture. One of our regular museum attendees strongly suspected that Standhardt actually modeled the museum off of the St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art, though I haven't verified this.
Anyway, construction ended up being more expensive than anticipated, leaving the A&H Society with little to no funding to cover daily operations. At the recommendation of the local WPA representative in town then, the A&H Society applied to become part of the Community Art Center Project. The benefit was that the FAP took care of staffing and supplied exhibitions, but it also caused a lot of tension between federal staff and the A&H sponsors because they had fundamentally different ideas of what the museum should be for the community. In 1942, tensions finally came to a head and the museum officially departed the FAP. Personally I think this is a major reason why it survived though, because by the time the FAP closed permanently, the Roswell Museum had already gone its own way in terms of covering expenses and programming.
Thanks so much for your questions!
Sara, I'd be interested to hear about how the visiting exhibitions related to the art classes and other educational work at the CACP. Was there a self-conscious, unifying programme in all this - the promotion of a certain ideal of American vernacular art, as a counter to European modernism? I'm thinking of the FSA photography and Walker Evans's American Photographs from the same period, and their fascination with handicrafts and small-town America.
Hi Tim, thanks for watching my video and for your great question.
From what I've seen of the exhibition checklists at the Roswell Museum there was definitely an emphasis on American vernacular art, though I wouldn't go so far to say that it was the unifying focus. The Index of American Design was shown there at least three times between 1938 and 1942, each with a different set of plates. Children's art was exhibited on at least a couple of occasions, including a national exhibition and local shows. There's also a Regionalist bent to several of the exhibitions, prints from Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc., and a solo show of Precisionist watercolorist Edmund Lewandowski featured rural subject matter such as barns, etc. There was more urban subject matter too though, such as Berenice Abbot's photos of New York. Regarding your question about European modernism though, there was an exhibition called Facsimiles of Modern Drawings that featured images by Picasso, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse, and other European modernists of the 19th-20th centuries, so the exhibition program wasn't entirely focused on American vernacular forms.
As for how the exhibitions related to the classes, what I know comes from the Roswell Museum, so this could have been different at other art centers. Overall there was a didactic bent to the exhibitions, especially in terms of educating visitors about form or technique. A lot of exhibitions explored how artists made their works, whether they focused on printmaking, tapestries, mosaics, etc. The classes tended to focus on traditional subject matter such as painting, drawing, sculpture, through there was a class on interior design too. So far I haven't found any direct references to students looking at artwork featured in shows and then emulating them in their paintings, nor have I seen special workshops on mosaics, printmaking, or other techniques on view in the gallery. Probably the most interesting reference I've is to the interior design class. The instructor apparently went to the local hardware or department store and brought examples of toasters and other appliances in other to demonstrate examples of good industrial design to students, something along the lines of MoMA's Machine Art but on a more modest scale.
This is a question I'll definitely need to look into more deeply moving forward, not least because the Roswell Museum may not offer the best case study with respect to the CACP's educational ambitions. Classes were always a controversial topic at Roswell, not least because the A&H Society had envisioned their institution as a traditional, collections-based history museum rather than an education art center, so they weren't always offered consistently. The situation was likely different at other art centers that planned on offering classes from the outset. As I continue learning about other art centers I'll definitely make sure to pay attention to how the classes and exhibitions engaged one another.
All that said, I'd say the program promoted an interest in American vernacular forms in keeping with similar sentiments found across the FAP, but it wasn't the exclusive focus. Figuring out the kinds of aesthetics and modernisms the CACP promoted through its exhibition program is something I'd like to delve into more deeply though, so I'm glad you brought it up.
Thank you again for listening, and for your questions.
Thanks, Sara! Good luck with your research - it sounds like a fascinating project.