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Culver's Post Office


By John C. Carlisle

On March 7, 1938, the Culver Postmaster wrote to Washington, D. C., to inform the Section of Fine Arts that Jessie Hull Mayer, an Indianapolis artist, had cemented a 10' x 4' oil painting to the lobby wall of the post office.

This mural, entitled "Arrival of the Mail in Culver," was commissioned by the Section, a New Deal agency organized in 1934 to provide "embellishments" for new federal buildings, such as the new Culver post office. Mayer actually had placed the mural on the wall three weeks earlier, but the Section commissions were not "officially" completed until the local postal official wrote to confirm that everything was finished.

Mayer's commission came as a result of an "honorable mention" award given to her design in the competition for the Lafayette, Indiana, post office mural, a competition won, by her husband, Henrik Martin Mayer. Twenty-seven other artists completed similar mural commissions for thirty-seven other locations in Indiana between 1936 and 1942.

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 pull 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 destroyed.

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, "Hel, 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 timel usually through the commissions for occasional murals and sculptures 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.

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, at 1:00 p.m., in the Washington, D.C., home of Edward Bruce., the committee secretary, to develop plans for the employment of artists; by 5:00 p.m. the Public Works of Art Project was begun. 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," according to records now in the National Archives in Washington, D. C.

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 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, would provide a beneficial boost in the morale of a depressed nation.

The PWAP was intended only as a brief, somewhat experimental effort, and when it ended, the director, Edward Bruce, was chosen to head a new arts program, this one also under the direction of the Treasury but without funding from WPA and without the constraints attached to the relief programs. In the summer of 1934, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury, issued a directive establishing a Section of Painting and Sculpture "to secure suitable art of the best quality for the embellishment of public buildings," as announced in a Section Bulletin, the information newsletter the agency published.

Bruce wanted to help in the dissemination of art throughout the country--he felt such experiences would raise the cultural taste of the citizens--but he had firm ideas about what could be called ''good'' art, and artists who worked under his direction had to meet his 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 it 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 1 packages.

Art works such as murals or wall-mounted sculptures in the lobby of a post office would 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. Although both wall-mounted reliefs and free­standing sculptures were commissioned, the overwhelming majority of the works is wall murals, usually mounted over the postmaster's door.

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 one percent of the cost of the building could be "reserved" for payment to artists for ''embellishment.'' 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 amazing.

Culver Post Office

As a protection against criticism, the Section selected the artists through a series of open competitions, open, that is, 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 sculptures ''so far as consistent with a high standard of art.'' On the other hand, if the building or the location warranted, a national competition was authorized. Thus, between 1934 and 1943, 190 state, regional, and national competitions were held which involved 15,426 artists who submitted 40,426 sketches.

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 would 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.

Once all the anonymous sketches had been received, either in Washington, or in the local post office, the selection jury would gather to make its decisions. For the national competitions nationally-known artists and sculptors 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 rominent citizens, including the local art teacher or the president of historical society, if such existed. 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 handful of cases did the Washington staff either question or reject the local selections.

When competitions were announced in the Section's Bulletin, 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. And if the jury had twenty sketches from which to select and if ten of them favorably reflected the town's history or its industrial and agricultural development, town pride often dictated that the three or four sketches selected as winners would be from artists whose work would reflect only the positive side of the town

Those artists whose commissions came as a result of an Honorable Mention in a competition--and the overwhelming majority of commissions came as a result 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 ubmit 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/agricultural 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. For those persons, the Section al least expected contact to be made with the postmaster for the appropriate information.

The correspondence file on Mayer in the National Archives does not reveal whether he visited Culver or corresponded with the Postmaster before choosing the content of the mural: local residents and students from the military academy looking at their mail. Because of her competent work, Mayer received three other commissions: Jasper, Indiana, 1939; Canton, Missouri, 1940; and LaGrange, Indiana, 1941.

Occasionally the persons depicted in post office murals are specific local figures. The dozens of other people shown in the other murals may not be identifiable by name, but by type, they represent the essence of the American scene concept. They are the farmers, the loggers, the railroad men, the pioneer mothers, and the workers of our history. These are self-made persons, a true grass-roots America, in an American locale. An Indiana postmaster told the author the story of local residents who swore they knew just the hill where the artist stood to paint a particular landscape, even though the scene actually was a composite of several places in the area and could not have been created from one spot.

This was the America and the Americans the Section wanted depicted on the walls of the hundreds of federal buildings being decorated through their efforts during those years at the end of one decade and the beginning of another. Success was theirs--even with the occasional administrative blunder or an unhappy postmaster or two or a disgruntled local editorial writer--and it was a success built, ironically, upon an economic disaster, the Depression, with its concomitant need to find worthwhile employment for hundreds of out-of-work artists.

Many of the artists employed by the various federal art programs of the Thirties, whether the Section, FAP, or TRAP­-artists such as Peter Hurd, Ben Shahn, Paul Cadmus, Jackson Pollack, and Wilhem de Kooning--became major figures in the history of American art. Their employment as muralists in post office lobbies and courthouses gave them exposure and experience, as well as income during difficult times. When the federal patronage ended, most artists who had received mural commissions had to find other employment, and many of them seem to have disappeared from the art scene; today some are virtually unknown.

Regardless of what happened to these artists in later years their work lives erforming a traditional function of public art, that is, celebrating common cultural aspirations and social values, thereby portraying important stories of the towns and of the townspeople of the American scene.

Those persons interested in finding out more about the New Deal art programs should check the local library for Matthew BaigelI's the American Scene, Milton Meltzer's Violins and Shovels: the WPA Art Projects, Richard D. McKenzie’s The New Deal for Artists and Marlene Park and Gerald Markowitz's Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal. For more information about the Indiana murals, check the library for Art For Main Street: The Indiana Post Office Murals, a 30-minute VHS videotape.