Section Art

Art created for federal buildings, including post offices, was funded and supervised by the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts, commonly known as 'the Section." As such it was not "WPA art" or part of the Federal Art Project. Decoration of such public buildings by professional artists accomplished two purposes: it provided work for artists during the Depression who, as Harry Hopkins said, "have got to eat just like other people," and it made art accessible to all people.

Most of the 15,426 artists in the 190 projects were 'invited' to apply for the competition because of their regional proximity to the respective projects. Their anonymous application sketches (not images for a project but samples of their work) were judged by various juries which included Section committees and residents from the local area where the project would be installed.

Once an artist was selected for a project, a contract was signed and the artist was paid 1/3 of the commission. The Section encouraged the artist to visit the town or village where the work was to be installed in order to obtain some background information that could inform the mural design. The artist was required to submit a black-and-white sketch in 1" to 1' scale of the proposed image, which then had to be approved by both local and Section committees. Revisions may have been requested; the final sketch before execution had to be a full-size cartoon, around 12' by 6'.

The final payment was not made until after the installed mural was approved. The average total payment to the artist was around $725, which was to cover travel, research, materials, and the final labor of mounting the mural on the post office wall.

Critics of the Section Art were many, including academic art critics who saw the art as "illustration," "lightweight," or "lowbrow." Pressure was certainly exerted on artists to create murals that would appeal to most of the public and offend no one. During this unsettled period in American History artists were often in the forefront of Social Realism art; their subject matter was generally anti-establishment, to put it mildly. As a result, many artist weren't happy with Section Art. Despite all of the accomodation made to please the public, some of the public argued that art was a frivolous expenditure of federal funds during a economic crisis. And, after the U.S. entry into World War II, when long-planned installations were being completed, loud and active protests were made about "wasteful" expenditures during war time. The projects were concluded, leaving a policy and body of work to be judged by later generations.


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