Where are the state’s New Deal art treasures?

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE – What’s the deal with New Mexico’s New Deal art? We have a whole lot of it – and should have even more.
Back during the Great Depression, from 1933 to 1943, the U.S. government had some honking big jobs programs. You’ve probably heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. There also were programs to employ thousands of artists nationwide. Being a favorite spot for artists, New Mexico had a big share of those programs.
In New Mexico, a committee of well-known artists was chosen to travel the state interviewing artists and inspecting their art.
The artists chosen produced murals, paintings, photographs, furniture, dishes, wrought iron fixtures, copper items, weavings and other decorative items.
The pieces were not purchased. The artists were paid a regular weekly salary, depending on their level of expertise, to produce more art. Since the artists worked for the government, their work belonged to the government.
It was placed in public buildings throughout the state.
Almost every school building had at least one piece of art. In addition, art was placed in all manner of other public buildings, including court houses, libraries, post offices, county and municipal buildings and universities.
The committee that chose artists also chose locations where the art would appear.
Some of the most impressive works are murals painted on the walls of court houses built during that period.
Evidently, little time was spent documenting where the art was placed. Over the years, public officials and employees came and went and institutional memory concerning the art works was lost.
During the 1984-85 school year, Clayton home economics teacher Joanne Butt assigned her students to assemble all the New Deal art works in the school district. The treasure hunt located 38 paintings plus dozens of other objects. It is the largest number of paintings in any of the state’s public school collections.
Possibly the Clayton hunt was better organized than any other in the state. It is hard to imagine that the Clayton schools would have been favored over other agencies in the state. The population of Clayton is only a fraction of one percent of the state’s population. I’ll leave you to do the math on how many items were distributed around the state during that 10-year period.
The Clayton Public Schools system has recently authorized transfer of its New Deal art collection to the Hertzstein Museum in Clayton. The move is intended to provide more public visibility and better storage and maintenance opportunities.
The Taos Public Schools’ art collection was recently transferred to the Harwood Museum in Taos. High School librarian Lynn del Margo is the latest in a series of people who were responsible for the initial development and caring for the Taos collection.
Wouldn’t it be great if all public agencies that were beneficiaries of these wonderful gifts could follow the lead of the Clayton and Taos schools?
For anyone interested in helping with a local treasure hunt, there are resources available. The National New Deal Preservation Association has its headquarters in New Mexico. Kathryn Flynn is its executive director.
Flynn has compiled many of the state’s Blue Books and also has written a valuable reference book, “Treasury of New Mexico Trails: Discover New Deal Art and Architecture.”
 It is available from Sunstone Press in Santa Fe. The book provides information on the New Deal artists and the locations of their work in New Mexico.
And maybe you know the location of some previously undiscovered New Deal art in New Mexico.
Flynn’s organization is always interested in finding what it calls “mystery artwork.” Over the past 12 years, the NNDPA has spent over $550,000 in New Mexico conserving many pieces of art that have been determined to be in need of immediate attention.
If you want to become involved, you can contact Flynn at 505-690-5845 or at newdeal@cybermesa.com.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.