Case Statement for NCPH New Deal Working Group

See this post for background on the NCPH Working Group.

As other members of the working group have noted, academic historians and popular audiences alike tend to recognize the importance of the New Deal and much of its legacy.1 In the course of my research, however, I have come to believe that both scholars and the public underestimate the extent and scope of the New Deal’s work relief and public works projects. The PWA, for example, provided grants and loans to public institutions of higher education for housing, administrative, instructional and maintenance facilities. In total, the PWA enabled the creation of 1286 college buildings worth $747 million2 through $83 million in grants and $29 million in loans.3 At my institution, Virginia Tech (then Virginia Polytechnic Institute), the PWA helped fund the construction or expansion of 14 buildings, including what is now the administration building, the student center, and several dormitories — Virginia Tech, in terms of its physical plant, is a New Deal institution.

Owing to this underestimation, I am interested in building out such a national inventory to help reinvigorate popular appreciation of the New Deal, making it publicly accessible through the web, and enriching it with historical data and media including photographs, oral histories, film, and audio, where possible. While a number of recent controversies and the broader conservative effort to roll back the New Deal have rallied defenders to the Roosevelt administration’s relief and infrastructure efforts, my experience indicates that a broader-based effort to reconnect the public with New Deal public and art works would be more effective in building public support than targeted defense of particular projects or the Roosevelt administration.

In pursuit of this project, I would like to suggest a mixed strategy of centralized and decentralized efforts including building a central inventory through National Archives research, but enriching it through state-level efforts or crowdsourced contributions led by working group participants. I could contribute my PWA higher ed database, for example, and lead groups in photographing or researching the history of individual VA sites. While such a strategy would lead to uneven enrichment, it would provide a central spine of information to build from, and would allow for school groups, college courses, or communities of interest at the public history grassroots to make a meaningful contribution to a national effort that also expressed local or regional pride.

  1. Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism; Robert Leighninger, Long-Range Public Investment
  2. Approx. $11.4B in 2011 dollars
  3. Records of Projects, 1933-1950; List of Alotted Non-Federal Projects as of May, 1942 RG 135 NARA II

Reconstructing the New Deal

NCPH Working Group:

10. Reconstructing the New Deal: Towards a National Inventory of New Deal Art and Public Works
Eileen Eagan, University of Southern Maine;
Gray Brechin, University of California at Berkeley;
Sean Lent, Independent Scholar;

This working group centers on interdisciplinary efforts to locate, collect, and bring to light the federally sponsored art and public works of the New Deal. We also plan to relate discussion of New Deal projects to recent controversies such as that over the labor history mural in Maine. This is public history in terms of locating and interpreting public sources and also doing so in relation to public policy. It also represents cultural democracy on the edge of capitalism, and its crash. This revival and renewal of New Deal history seems especially essential in light of recent debates over the impact of New Deal policy and efforts to forget or distort the legacy of those policies. A group at the University of California at Berkeley has developed the California Living New Deal project to map New Deal projects in California. Groups elsewhere, including Maine, have engaged students in similar projects in those areas. A new project could expand these efforts into a national inventory. This working group will bring together faculty and students involved in these efforts. We invite others from around the country to join us in this discussion and planning to pursue this project. Eileen Eagan and Sean Lent will discuss and present results from the activity in Maine. Gray Brechin, from the Geography department at UC Berkeley will discuss his experiences and plans based on the California project. He will also assert the urgent need for a national inventory of New Deal public works. Discussion by the people attending the working group will follow short presentations by Brechin, Eagan and Lent. This working group will take place at the Milwaukee Public Museum, a short two block walk from the Frontier Airlines Center.

Historic Photography

A photo project I’ve recently seen passed around Facebook is the Detroit re-photography project by David Jordano. A Chicago-based photographer, in 1973 Jordano was a Detroiter and conducted a photo survey of his city. He recently revisited those sites and worked to reshoot the photos. Some instances seem like a twist on the standard “ruin porn” of decaying Motor City landmarks — this one of the interior of the Michigan Central station, for example.

However, Jordano’s efforts get somewhat more poignant when his 1973 images illustrate just what has been lost in the interim.

In Jordano’s depiction, the great hall really was a waiting room, with black and white Detroiters caught in moments of calm and repose between trains. His image is testament to the loss of an era of grand architecture, where private commerce could sustain a public good and enrich the lives of all the citizens residents and travelers.

But Jordano’s photos also illustrate the loss of modest structures, ones that made no list of architectural achievements or corporate headquarters. This photo from 1973 nearly makes me weep to think of the careful tending and modest but forceful design intended in the building. The top image could come straight out of an exhibit in Kelo v. New London or mid-century urban renewal pamphlets.

And now we’ve got a semi parking lot or distribution center. Woo chain link.

Also, I must note that, despite the talk of the affordability and quality of digital cameras, Jordano’s rig (likely an expensive large format view camera) from 1973 vastly outstrips his new camera. A better lens, better resolution, and more masterful lighting make the black and white images simply better on nearly every count. They seem like fine art pieces, far more so than the well composed but lifeless digital equivalents.

Together, this pairing of images from 1973 — nearly the apex of postwar prosperity — with contemporary versions tells a story, a narrative of loss and unfulfilling rebirth in a new neoliberal framework, where old-line retailers and their buildings are replaced by the hostile headquarters of computer software companies, and ramshackle but dignified homes are bulldozed for Pepsi bottling plants. Here we really see the cost of deindustrialization and the limited gains for places like Detroit, not simply imagining what must have been there before the parking lots. Being confronted with this reality is, in fact, much worse than our imaginations could conjure.

The Gross Clinic

Gross Clinic Restoration

Above you see an image of Thomas Eakins’ restored Gross Clinic (restored version left, old version right). The painting was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from Jefferson University, pre-empting an agreement to sell the classic Thomas Eakins painting to the National Gallery of Art and the Crystal Bridges Museum, in 2007. After taking possession, the PMA conducted an extensive restoration, which included x-radiography (discovering that Eakins had moved some elements in the painting), removal of an obsolete varnish and application of a new varnish, and restoration of a dark glaze to at least one key part of the painting. The restored image is now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Perelman Building) until January, 2011.

The painting is the center of a fascinating exhibit about the creation of the painting, its reception, regional pride, and art restoration. Beginning with review excerpts illustrating the range of attitudes about the painting, the first gallery establishes both the controversy surrounding the modern, realist, and bloody portrait, and its artistic importance in 1876. The second gallery offers a brief sketch of Eakins’ life and the exhibition of the painting at the model military hospital at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. The third gallery, which features The Gross Clinic, also contains a number of other Eakins paintings, including another surgery portrait, The Agnew Clinic; as well as Mending the Nets; Between Rounds; a portrait of Benjamin Rand, and a few studies Eakins made for the Gross portrait. In addition, it contains a section on the study and restoration process, including two key images, one a reproduction work by Eakins from around its completion for publication, and another a black and white photograph of the painting from early in the 20th century, before its first major (and highly interventionist) restoration work.

Beyond the painting itself is a small theater space showing a 24-minute video on the acquisition and restoration of The Gross Clinic. The video is well produced and fairly interesting, but has two problems: first, it is basically a video repetition of the gallery wall on the restoration process; second, it does much to promote the PMA’s restoration genius, but passes up the opportunity to offer insight into the history of restoration and why such processes may both be necessary and evolutionary. The PMA’s web pages on the restoration are more thorough and informative in this regard. Simply put, early treatments are presented as bad, mid-century and recent PMA treatments are good, even when issues with the PMA’s 1961 restoration (the obsolete varnish) must be revisited in due course. Such a simple morality tale aggrandizes the deservedly proud PMA and PAFA, but I as an audience member was left with a sense of heroes and villains in restoration, surely a facile way to think about the process that has been ongoing for about a century.

One final note on the exhibit and the PMA — the museum shops at the main building and the Perelman Building were both adequate, with the significant and even shameful lack of postcards for purchase (there were a handful in the main building, but did not include most of the museum’s main holdings). This is a terrible error and an annoyance to patrons. I love buying postcards when I go to new places, museums included. In the case of excellent art or history exhibits, a postcard is an affordable keepsake representing some feature of the exhibit. In the case of The Gross Clinic in particular, I would love to send a postcard to an acquaintance who is a scholar of the history of the human body and has almost a full-size poster print of the unrestored Gross Clinic in his office. No such luck — you dropped the ball, PMA.

Again with the Photography?

Dinner Party
Originally uploaded by urbanoasis

Best conference Web site ever — Photographic Proofs, an event a colleague of mine at Yale is putting on in April.

In local news the Art Institute of Chicago is currently exhibiting photos from its pretty good photography collection in the show The Other Side of Light. My favorite was Kertesz’ “Cafe,” , while my wife liked Bravo’s “Los Agachados.” A problem I always have with photography exhibits is that they treat the photographic print like a painting, barely acknowledging the instruments that go into the creation of the image including camera, lens, film, and paper. In that there are three significant, discrete processes that are part of creating a photographic print under dramatically different circumstances (exposure, film development, printing [and you might be able to argue for a fourth in paper development]), it has always seemed to me that there should be some effort made to address this rich process.

The accompanying photo was from an hour-long exposure I made with the Matt Callow brand paint can pinhole. We’re party people.

Theater Tip

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind performed by the Neo-Futurists. One of my wife’s colleagues invited us to see the best of 2006 show last year, with some seriously funny plays performed in an Andersonville black box theater.

With a friend in town, we saw the best of 2007 show last night featuring some more great plays. All around an interesting experience, from the labrynthine second floor where the theater is to the roll-of-the-die entrance fee to the plays themselves: think David Ives if he only had a few days to write and rehearse each play before production. But don’t take my word for it.

Shadow/Art Fair

I’m unfortunately not going to be in Ypsi for this year’s Shadow Art Fair. In order to console myself, I’m going to the shadow exhibit The Other Side of Light exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, particularly since the disappointing Richard Misrach exhibition (I’ve noted that anything with an introduction implying that 9/11 changed everything already has one strike against it). I don’t think photography gets enough play at the AIC museum. While there is the regular downstairs gallery for temporary exhibitions, I can’t think of an ongoing exhibition of their permanent collection, which is pretty nice, with some really important images.

Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ

This early cut is my favorite Springsteen album. Springsteen is probably the only national music act I really like because his local roots are clear and continue to offer him musical inspiration.

At the planning history conference this past week/end, there was a screening of a documentary of the same name, focusing on eminent domain in Asbury Park. Think Kelo and you’ve more or less got the New Jersey story; even now there is a pause in both developments because of economic downturn. The 90 minute documentary focuses on the filmmaker’s great aunt, a Greek immigrant whose house is slated for acquisition and demolition. The documentary illustrates the elderly woman, who came to the U.S. as an adult refugee, attempting to navigate the many political, legal, and economic forces allied against her in an attempt to save her house. After Kelo, this looks like a losing battle. The film was emotionally powerful, but could do more to contextualize the process and impact of redevelopment. It featured the song “Tunnel of Love” by Springsteen, but no track from his debut album of the same name. When I asked the filmmaker, she said she couldn’t get rights, but if she got national distribution (it’s a fine cut almost ready to go now) he would write a song for it. A Springsteen song on eminent domain? If I was lukewarm on the film, I’m definitely rooting for it now.