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‘Art of the New Deal’ events

    Opening reception: 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday, April 8.

    Folksinger Bucky Halker will present “Woody Guthrie, the Great Depression and American Protest Songs” through the Illinois Humanities Council Road Scholar Program. The event begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 8, in Altgeld Hall Room 315.

    An intergenerational art workshop for children ages 6 to 9 and their parents and grandparents will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 10. Advance registration is required. Call (815) 753-1936.

    NIU oral history students taught in the fall of 2009 by assistant professor Stanley Arnold, NIU Department of History, interviewed residents of local retirement communities who lived through the Great Depression. Their audio recordings will be donated to the Regional Archives. Arnold will chair a panel discussion of senior citizens talking about their experiences during this time period. The event will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 13, in Altgeld Hall Room 315.

    David Kyvig, Distinguished Research Professor, NIU Department of History, will present a lecture titled “Documenting the Depression: The Farm Security Administration as the Nation’s Lens.” The lecture begins at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, in Altgeld Hall Room 315.

    Elizabeth Seaton, Eli Associate Curator at the Marianna Kislter Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University-Manhattan, will present a lecture titled “New Deal Print Exhibitions: A Historical and Critical Perspective.” The lecture begins at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 21.

    “If FSA Today” is a teen documentary photography workshop Saturday, April 24, and Saturday, May 1, that will produce photographs for an exhibition at the NIU Art Museum scheduled for Sunday, May 2, through Friday, May 28. The deadline to register is Saturday, April 3. Students from each of the DeKalb County high schools, as well as home school representatives, will be selected to participate in this intensive two-day workshop documenting the urban and rural scene in DeKalb County. Conducted by Wade Duerkes of NIU Media Services, this project is under consideration for a DCCF YEP (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) grant award.

    Children ages 10 to 13 are invited to a printmaking workshop from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 24. Advance registration is required. Call (815) 753-1936.

    A film screening and discussion of “The Cradle Will Rock,” led by faculty from the NIU Department of English and the NIU School of Theatre and Dance, begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 29, at the Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St. This is writer-director Tim Robbins’ chronicle of the Orson Welles-produced musical “The Cradle Will Rock,” which was created as part of the WPA-funded Federal Theater project and ultimately was censored by the government. Robbins’ movie examines the relationship between art and politics in America in the 1930s.

    Two large-scale posters about the Gustaf Dahlstrom WPA mural, located at the DeKalb Public Library, will be on display in the museum. The posters are being researched by DPL staff and designed by NIU Media Services. Funded by a grant from the DeKalb County Community Foundation, these posters will be made available (after the museum’s exhibitions) for short-term loans to local schools. They are accompanied by an optional power-point presentation given by museum staff on the WPA and FAP mural projects movement.

    The NIU Art Museum will offer a Get-On-The-Bus trip to view WPA murals in the Chicago area Friday, May 14. Stops could include Lane Tech School, Oak Park Post Office, Lakeview Station Post Office, one or more of the Chicago Park District Field Houses and The Southside Community Art Center.

Art Museum to explore Great Depression
through ‘Art of the New Deal’ exhibitions

March 29, 2010

by Mark McGowan

Visions of joy and of despair. Images of employment and of joblessness. Pictures of progress and of death.

In “Art of the New Deal,” an exhibition suite scheduled to open April 8 at the NIU Art Museum inside Altgeld Hall, visitors will gain a challenging glimpse into that difficult period in U.S. history – years that have taken on a haunting familiarity in current economic times.

An image from ‘Art of the New Deal’

Photographs, paintings, etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and more – the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration sponsored the creation of many of the pieces – will complement a broad series of programming about the Great Depression that will include music, film, lectures, panel discussions, field trips and workshops.

But it’s the black-and-white faces of courage and fear, and of victory and defeat, that will make a lasting impact.

“This is persuasive and powerful imagery,” said Jo Burke, director of the NIU Art Museum.

“As an art museum, it’s important to us to show the impact art can have through both the messages it can give and the history it can document to tell the story so many years later,” Burke added. “It’s also important for us to see that people survived this once before, in much worse situations – but they did survive, and there are lessons to be learned. It shows our strength as a people.”

Museum publicity coordinator Diana Arntzen realized the “New Deal” exhibitions’ power through her fifth-grade son.

“He wasn’t getting anything out of reading about this in his history book. He wasn’t getting a sense of how bad it was, how widespread it was,” Arntzen said. “Until you see something like this it doesn’t hit you. But when we stop and look at images – maybe a black man in town with no shoes or migrant workers in California or the dustbowl – maybe they solidify what you’ve been reading, what you’ve been learning, what you’ve been told about.”

And there is plenty to learn.

The exhibition is perfect for schoolchildren, senior citizens and everyone in between. Not only does it depict human frailty and strength but also illuminates social collaboration and dissent through its history lessons.

“I didn’t know how timely it all would be, and I didn’t know it would be so political,” Burke said. “I grew up with older parents who grew up in the Depression. To me, FDR was a hero. These programs were wonderful. I had always loved WPA murals. I didn’t know there was another attitude about it all.”

“Parents and teachers can bring young children in here,” added Arntzen, whose mother has distributed post cards about the exhibition at a senior living center. “They’re not going to be shocked or upset by anything, because these are pieces of our history.”

Open through Friday, May 28, the “Art of the New Deal” exhibition suite features:

  • “This Great Nation Will Endure,” a national traveling exhibition organized by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Museum and Libraries of documentary photographs from the Farm Security Administration.
  • “Coming of Age: The WPA/FAP Graphic Arts Division and the American Print,” co-organized with students enrolled in “Museum Exhibitions and Interpretation,” a graduate-level museum studies course. Featured prints are on loan from museums and private collections.
  • “New Deal Era Images and Objects,” changing exhibits related to the period, including influential texts, colorful machine glass of the Depression era, “If FSA Today …” workshop photographs by DeKalb County high school students and posters documenting the DeKalb Public Library’s WPA mural.

Peter Van Ael, coordinator of both the interdisciplinary graduate certificate in the Museum Studies Program and the School of Art’s Jack Olson Gallery, worked with his ART 656 Museum Exhibitions and Interpretation students to curate the “Coming of Age” component.

Van Ael and students from his fall “Curatorial Practice” course worked to obtain the loans for 61 prints, conducted baseline research into the art of the era and started writing for the exhibition catalog.

This semester’s students began in January to design the publication, create educational programs, develop exit surveys for visitors and tackle the physical task of preparing the gallery space: selecting colors for the walls, painting and making text panels to post next to the prints. Another student found a corporate sponsor: Veolia Transportation, which operates the Huskie Bus Line.

An image from ‘Art of the New Deal’

Collected prints show laborers, including miners and locomotive engineers, as well as construction and the Fort Dearborn Massacre. There are 10 woodcuts by Charles Turzak that depict Illinois history. There are Chicago scenes by Max Kahn, whose daughter, Katie Kahn, is an associate professor of painting in the NIU School of Art.

Mike Rossow, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. and American History who’s enrolled in Van Ael’s museum studies course this semester, has served as head of the editing team. The work has taught the Hampshire resident more about the WPA and art itself, including the different processes of printmaking.

Rossow plans to teach history at a community college but is open to work at a museum or archive. “This kind of experience is essential for me to get my foot in that door,” he said.

Classmate Danielle Barton, who’s earning her master of fine arts degree in sculpture, has headed up the exhibition design team and assumed the role of lead editor of the catalog.

Barton has come to appreciate the enormous amount of labor necessary to curate an exhibition – “how to hang the works, how to properly light them” – as well as the WPA artwork itself.

“A lot of these works have been lost through the years,” the Stillman Valley native said. “I have really enjoyed the opportunity to bring this work to the forefront and to give it a greater awareness through large audiences.”

Located on the west-end first floor of Altgeld Hall, the galleries are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and by appointment for group tours. Exhibitions and lectures are free; donations are appreciated.

The exhibitions of the NIU Art Museum are funded in part by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, the Friends of the NIU Art Museum, and the Arts Fund 21. Support for the New Deal Era projects has also come from 3M Foundation, the DeKalb County Community Foundation, John and Nancy Castle, Panera Bread, Veolia Transportation, the University Honors Program and the Illinois Humanities Council.

For more information, visit or call (815) 753-1936.