Conserving American Treasures

Conserving American Treasures: Progressive & New Deal Era Murals

By Diane Althouse, 2006

Mural painting in the United States has a long history dating back to the 1700’s, with the early 1900’s being the most prolific period of mural creation. Because they were federally funded, these murals can be found in virtually every state in the Union. Fortunately, many of these murals survive today, albeit in various stages of repair. As a result, every citizen can easily view and enjoy these great works of art made by American artists at the dawn of the twentieth century. The U.S. government is the owner and caretaker of all existing Progressive and New Deal murals housed in federal buildings. Post offices and school districts house and own thousands of additional murals from this time period.

In order to establish the historical context, this brief will highlight the two great “eras” of federal public arts projects in the United States. The first era is called the Progressive Era. It took place between 1904 and 1933. The second era, called the New Deal Era, took place during the Great Depression and ended during the early years of World War II. Two important mural restoration projects from these eras exemplify how conservation of these murals is technically demanding, expensive and time consuming. In order to discuss the complexity and painstaking care that mural preservation requires, this brief will discuss the Progressive and New Deal Era mural programs and two restoration projects. Finally, the various conservation techniques that were used on these collections will be discussed. The two collections are those owned by the Norwalk Transit Authority in Norwalk, Connecticut, and by the Chicago Public School System in Chicago, Illinois.

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