A Treasury of Murals: Nebraska’s Post Office Legacy

June 17 –October 12, 2008 —

Between 1938 and 1942, twelve Nebraska towns received special gifts − fine art murals made possible through the patronage of the Federal Government’s Department of Treasury, permanently on view in local post offices. All of Nebraska’s Treasury murals remain intact in their original locations: Albion, Auburn, Crawford, Geneva, Hebron, Minden, Ogallala, O’Neill, Pawnee City, Red Cloud, Schuyler, and Valentine. Though other murals can be found in public venues across Nebraska, this exhibition focuses specifically on the history of the Treasury murals. This photographic journey crosses the state from Long Horns at Ogallala to Winter in Nebraska at Auburn. Special loans from the Smithsonian Institution and the Nebraska State Historical Society accompany the photographs, which are highlighted with relevant information revealing the history behind the artwork.

There always exists a struggle between those who believe that art is enriching and integral, and those who see it as purely decorative. During the late 1930s and early ‘40s, imagine this conflict magnified by the then recent memory of the Great Depression. Imagine a 1% building appropriation on the local county courthouse or post office − for artwork funded by the Procurement Division of the Treasury’s Public Works branch in 1934. The nationwide average of Treasury murals was $725, equivalent to $11,650 in 2008 dollars.

The Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, née the Section of Fine Arts, née “the Section,” had a special niche among other art programs of the era. Simply stated, the mission of the Section was to amass a national collection of fine artworks that would be housed in public locations from sea to shining sea. Courthouses and post offices, generally located in areas perceived as culturally underserved, became mini-museums. Over 1,300 paintings and 300 sculptural works became permanent fixtures in these oft frequented buildings. The program was administered by Edward Bruce, whose philosophy was moving and genuine:

“All over this great country of ours, and I speak whereof I know, there is a longing and a soul striving for something more and finer and better in life than two automobiles in every garage and a radio in every room. There is a desire for beauty, a reaction against the ugliness that surrounds us, a wish to fill one’s time with new interests, a hope to find an outlet for the creative spirit.”

The Section was concerned not with putting struggling artists to work; instead, the focus was the acquisition of quality artwork indicative of the unique American experience. Acceptable topics reflected only positive remembrances from our shared history and uplifting scenes depicting the innate goodness of American life, present and future. It was decided that the imagery within the commissions should be easily understandable to everyone. Thus, few abstractions were allowed and regionalism became the language of Section artwork.

Once a building had been identified in a community needing artistic inspiration, the Section would begin advertising for artists’ submissions. Most contests took place on a regional level with the assistance of local administrators, but a handful of searches were offered nationwide. Artists were challenged to make site-specific creations and they submitted ideas in cartoon form. Despite this “democratic” methodology, some communities found fault with aesthetics of their completed mural. For instance, End of Line by Kady Faulkner proved problematic for the citizens of Valentine. Residents felt that the landscape was unfamiliar, and that other aspects of the painting were unrealistically rendered. In comparison, Eldora Lorenzini’s Stampeding Buffalo Stopping Train was tremendously popular with the citizens of Hebron. Since the artist worked on-site, she was treated to a variety of compliments on her topic as well as her skill in matching the hues of the wood in the lobby with the hides of the bison. Though these murals were created for a specific location, post offices were working businesses. Murals had to provide functional decorations, so they were generally placed in the lobby above the postmaster’s door. Community naysayers were quick to comment if a mural “clashed” with the décor.

Nebraska’s Section murals are unique for a myriad of reasons. One was created by the youngest artist ever to receive a Federal commission during the era, another by an artist who was the only native Nebraskan to receive a Section commission within the state, and two of the artists were a married couple.

Hindsight, they say, is twenty-twenty. The Section is arguably the most important of the three government art projects implemented during FDR’s administration, and Nebraska has lasting reminders in twelve historic post office buildings.