Introduction: Eleanor Among the Arts
Above: detail of "Powell Street", Lucien Labaudt, mural, Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA. Photograph courtesy of Barbara Bernstein and the New Deal Art Registry.
Under the New Deal, artists were put to work creating murals in public spaces, artwork for civic buildings, and community art centers under the direction of various federally funded programs. This exhibition examines the hidden and important role Eleanor Roosevelt played in the formation of these programs, as well as her advocacy for the fine arts in American culture. In particular, the exhibition emphasizes Eleanor Roosevelts’s participation in the early stages of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in 1933, and her later influence over the arts programs developed within the Work Progress Administration’s (WPA) “Federal Project Number 1”. Mrs. Roosevelt’s repeated emphasis on the role of the fine arts in civic life is examined through her public speeches, radio addresses, and correspondence with prominent artists and intellectuals. The exhibition also focuses on Val-Kill Industries, a business founded by Mrs. Roosevelt and her friends Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman, and Caroline O’Day. Both Val-Kill Industries and the New Deal Arts project embodied various themes of Eleanor’s advocacy for the role of art in American culture: the connection between making and participating, the appreciation of beauty in simple things, and art as a means to connect individuals to larger national narratives. Edward Bruce, the director of the PWAP, wrote in a letter to Mrs. Roosevelt that he and his wife “always think of you as the patron saint of our art movement. It was you who graced the first step that was taken to start the movement for the artists; and since that time I am happy to tell you how splendidly it has resulted.” By piecing together the actions she took to incorporate art into her vision of American life, this exhibition exposes the vital and yet previously unexamined importance of Eleanor Roosevelt within the history and development of American art.