With the closing of Mt. Morris Tuberculosis Hospital in 1972, the question of what to do with its collection of Federal Art Project (FAP) paintings led to a survey by an art consultant. In many respects she was guided by questions of artistic merit. Nevertheless all of the paintings were evaluated as to their condition, which included many kinds of damage: “spotted,” “dented,” “crayon marks,” “tack marks,” “pitted,” “flaked,” “paint thinning,” and even “torn canvas.” The most common descriptor was simply “surface dirt”—acknowledgment that the paintings were material objects and vulnerable to the same deterioration as anything else on planet earth.
This exhibit uses the New Deal Gallery collection as a case study for at least three ways of thinking about conservation: as an issue concerning art museums and archives generally; as an urgent environmental issue, specifically during the 1930s; and as an ethical issue encompassing those first two discourses. What does our culture choose to conserve? What choices have led to conditions of neglect? Consider the painting shown here, Erna Lange’s 1936 painting Chinese Lantern. Cracked paint and surface dirt in the 1972 survey has led to some of it chipping away, probably aggravated by years of storage in a tunnel connecting two buildings at the Mt. Morris complex. The canvas now is in need of restoration. It’s not irrelevant to remember that Lange’s painting had been created during conditions of extreme drought, with subsequent dust storms even further suppressing rainfall (Gray). Emergency programs like the Soil Conservation Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps struggled to mitigate the loss of surface dirt.
Two normally separate frameworks of conservation—the work of preventing damage to works of art, and to ecological systems—often were conflated during the 1930s. FAP Administrator Holger Cahill wrote that “Conservation of the nation’s resources has become a major function of government,” by which he meant soils and forests, paintings along with the “artistic skills and talents” needed to create them. The New Deal era offered blunt assessments of unsustainable practices because it had no other choice; it created innovative conservation practices we have forgotten and need to remember quickly. Caretaking ignores false categories, the modern curator Robert R. Janes calling museums “seed banks” and “keepers of locality” amid ruinous global economies. The pages of this exhibit approach the New Deal Gallery itself as one such site of neglect and conservation.
— Cahill, Holger. Introduction. New Horizons in American Art, Museum of Modern Art, 1936, pp. 9-41. Web version at Museum of Modern Art.
— Gray, Ellen. “NASA Study Finds That 1934 Had Worst Drought of Last Thousand Years.” NASA: Global Climate Change; Vital Signs of the Planet. 15 Oct. 2014. Web.
Credits: Michael Griffin, Madison Jackson, Ricky Noel, Alison Stern, Nick Vanamee, Ken Cooper, Abigail Ritz.