Art, Expedited

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), vast in subject and scope, was a relief program founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the wake of the Great Depression. It was part of the New Deal, with the central idea being to provide unemployed Americans with work opportunities, ranging from the construction of buildings and bridges, to the staging of plays and painting of murals. In addition to the WPA, artists could find work through other government-funded programs, like the Treasury Section of Fine Art (TSFA), which was dedicated to decorating and “beautifying” public buildings. Unlike the WPA, which provided relief to artists based upon need, the TSFA enacted a meritocratic policy, encouraging artists to compete for work and pay. The aim of the TSFA “was to secure for the Government the best art which this country is capable of producing, with merit as the only test”. (1) For every federal building built, 1% of the total construction budget was allocated for the creation of public art. The most ubiquitous form of public art that came out of the TSFA was post office murals.

"Antelope," by Olive Rush, 1939, at the Florence post office in Colorado.
 
In order to gain a contract, artists were required to submit a proposal for a committee to review, which usually consisted of other artists and members of the local community. The committee then chose the artist they believed best suited the job. The goal was to commission art that was site-specific; art that was of and for the community it was situated within. A direct connection to the subject matter and geographical location were a plus, but not required. Most of these artists were realists and their murals depicted American life as they saw it, which, in the post-war era, ranged from harsh agrarian working conditions to vivid depictions of racial and social injustices within local communities.
"Horse Corral," by Ethel Magafan, 1942, south Denver post office.
 

Post office murals were an important artistic niche that exposed rural populations, particularly throughout the West and Midwest, to contemporary art. Each time a farmer or rancher traveled to town to drop off a package, they could gaze up at the murals above them while waiting in line. Nearly every town in America had a post office and nearly every resident frequented the post office, so it was a “truly democratic art form." A startling number of public art was created as a result of this program, roughly 1,400 murals in 1,300 cities.

“The Spanish Peaks” at the Walsenburg post office in Colorado by E.L Blumenschein, 1932.

Most of these murals still exist today, oil paintings on a 12ft x 5ft canvas, scattered across the country. If you find yourself traveling and need to mail a letter to a friend, consider heading to the nearest post office. There could be a mural inside, which can offer a glimpse of local life (circa 1934) without the museum fee.

Ila Turner McAfee, "Wealth of the West," 1940, Gunnison, CO post office.

Reference:

(1) Treasury Department, Section of Painting and Sculpture, Bulletin No. 7, December 1935, p. 2.