WPA mural commissions gave rare opportunities to African American painters in the 1930s-including a Columbia alum
Detail, Panel 7 of Vertis Hayes' Pursuit of Happiness, oil on plaster wall, 1937
In October 2005, Harlem Hospital Center broke ground on a $243 million modernization of its facilities-the largest single rebuilding project ever undertaken by the Health and Hospitals Corp., the entity that governs the New York City public healthcare system. At the center of that plan is the restoration and conservation of five priceless murals, all of them commissioned by the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) and all of them offering commentary on the political and cultural climates of 1930s America.
A new Web site created by Columbia's Digital Knowledge Ventures (DKV) documents the restoration process for the murals and comes loaded with user-friendly extras:
Video documentaries that include an interview with the last living artist, Georgette Seabrooke Powell
Commentary from art historians who provide background information and historical context on the artists and the WPA
Interviews with Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Slideshows featuring details of the murals
Images of original documents securing the commissions
Sponsored by Columbia's Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) and the University's Office of Government and Community Affairs, the site displays a wealth of information on one of the nation's most important art treasures. Art created during the WPA period defines a major period of American art history. Artists during that period moved away from the highly stylized work of European innovators such as Picasso and began to create a new visual language for describing the United States. For African American artists, WPA-era art also provided a bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s.
Because the murals are unavailable for viewing during their restoration, the site-which was researched, designed and produced by DKV-also provides an opportunity for them to be appreciated.
Check out the site to view the murals and visit IRAAS and the Schomburg on the Web for more information.