Art of the Great Depression: The Federal Art Project Collection at JMU
August 28th-October 6th
Get a taste of Depression-era America in the newest exhibit at the Lisanby Museum, located on the first floor of Festival. Art of the Great Depression is presented in conjunction with Dr. David Ehrenpreis’ art history project, Picturing Harrisonburg: Visions of a Shenandoah Valley City Since 1828, which is currently on display in Duke Hall. Where Ehrenpreis focuses on a single town over a long period, Art of the Great Depression provides a survey of life and art across the United States during a period that changed the nation.
Curated by Dr. Kate Stevens, Director of the Madison Art Collection, the exhibit shows a selection of works from the Federal Art Project, the visual-arts arm of the Works Project Administration. The Works Progress Administration was one of numerous New Deal programs designed to employ Americans during the Depression. Though the FAP only operated from 1935-1943, some 10,000 workers all over the country produced over 200,000 separate works of art in a variety of media—and all of that art needed somewhere to go. The Works Progress Administration distributed many of the pieces to educational entities, creating a stable catalogue in a vast network across a variety of public institutions. Dr. Stevens noted that JMU’s collection has been here since 1936, when the school was still Madison College, and is technically on loan from the government. Sophomore anthropology major and Lisanby intern Madeleine Bolton shared that a government official is assigned to periodically inspect the collection to ensure that it is being maintained to the proper standards. During inspections, the official is “checking up on humidity and how hot it is in here,” giving a tangible reminder that despite its 80-year tenure here at Madison, the collection is still government property.
While its sister exhibit, Picturing Harrisonburg, focuses on the city itself, Art of the Great Depression gives “a nice sort of snapshot of works during the Depression,” according to the curator, Dr. Stevens.
“Unfortunately, the [works and artists] are not [from the Harrisonburg area],” says Dr. Stevens, “but we do have Carson Davenport, who’s probably one of the more famous Virginia artists […] he was a huge, huge, big deal in the 1930s, and we have two of his works, which is fantastic.” Davenport was a favorite of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was First Lady at the time. The collection features a variety of artists and subjects in numerous media, including weaving, quilting, etching, lithography, linoleum printing, and watercolor. Dr. Stevens pointed out that the Works Progress Administration was the largest employer of Americans during the Depression, noting that “you have artists that are out of work, but you can also teach skills as well, […] that whole idea that we’re giving you something that can be marketable. I think they were trying to do just a little bit of everything.”
Indeed, a little bit of everything is what you’ll get at this fascinating exhibit! The quiet, open space and abundant natural light lends itself to contemplation of the art and history, and its convenient location in Festival means you won’t have to go out of your way for the experience. Knowledgeable and passionate interns greet visitors and answer questions, and iPads provide visitors with detailed information about the works and artists on display.