A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania’s New Deal Post Office Murals.
March 10 – December 22, 2013
The Centre County Historical Society hosted the traveling exhibit titled “A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania’s New Deal Post Office Murals” in 2013. In 1933, the administration of newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt launched an ambitious program to place murals and sculptures in post offices across the country. “A Common Canvas” will exhibit 15 photographic images of this public art, featuring themes of agriculture, industry, and airmail with a special emphasis on artworks from central Pennsylvania. Also displayed are early airmail objects and images from the Centre County Region.
First presented by the State Museum of Pennsylvania in 2008, “A Common Canvas” was originally created to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The original exhibit featured over 50 examples of murals and sculptures created for Pennsylvania post offices between 1934 and 1943, and was co-curated by Dr. Curt Miner (now the Senior Curator of History) and State College native David Lembeck. The exhibit was the result of a research and documentation project by David Lembeck and photographer Michael Mutmansky. David writes:
Many Pennsylvania boroughs are home to frequently overlooked art treasures which date from the 1930s and early 40s. They are found in post offices built during the New Deal when beautiful murals and sculptures were created expressly for newly constructed federal buildings. Of the 94 works of art commissioned for Pennsylvania, 88 are in post offices located in towns. Although often thought of as “WPA art,” post office murals were in fact commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts and paid for with one percent of the construction appropriations for federal projects. The Section of Fine Arts selected artists through anonymous competitions and encouraged art that reflected the town for which it was created. In Pennsylvania, the major themes are agriculture, steel, coal, other industry, and local history.
In Danville, for instance, “Iron Pouring,” a 1938 aluminum relief sculpture, depicts a 19th century foundry, commemorating the borough’s importance as the first manufacturer of iron T-rails for railroads (pictured above).
Placing artwork in a downtown post office ensured that it would be seen by the most residents possible. In every community the post office remains a major public building. As a center of commercial activity it draws customers on a daily basis as well as being a symbol of the federal government. Often residents who could receive home delivery choose to maintain a post office box. Going to the post office to retrieve mail is part of their daily routine — a time to visit with neighbors and catch up on local news.
Post office art helps create civic pride and a sense of identity. The New Deal artwork often celebrates a unique feature of a community’s past.
SPONSORS & PARTNERS: This exhibit is a collaboration of Centre County Historical Society, David Lembeck, photographer Michael Mutmansky, the State Museum of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Exhibit objects featured are from the American Philatelic Society, and the Centre County Library & Historical Museum – Pennsylvania Room with Post Office Mural panels from the State Museum of Pennsylvania. Printing is sponsored in part by Jaru Associates, Inc.