“New Deal” Art in New Mexico

A brief look at art and artists during the Great Depression

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When was the last time you paused in a post office, courthouse, library, university or college to look at murals that were painted more than sixty years ago to enhance these buildings? Numerous public buildings throughout New Mexico have excellent, though often neglected, artwork adorning walls and tucked away in offices or corridors. Why were these works of art placed in public buildings, and who are the artists who created them?

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a program he referred to as the New Deal, to help pull the United States out of the Great Depression. Although the New Deal did not end the depression, it relieved much economic hardship and renewed Americans' faith in the democratic system at a time when other nations hit by the depression turned to dictators. While the New Deal focused primarily on helping farmers, industry, investors, and the desperately needy, it also bolstered and resuscitated the arts by providing work for artists, writers, actors and musicians through a program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Loeffler: Untitled

Gisella Loeffler "Untitled"
Carrie Tingley Hospital, Albuquerque, NM

Jonson: Engineering

Raymond Jonson
"Engineering" / Cycle of Science Series
Jonson Gallery, University of New Mexico,
Albuquerque, NM

The purpose of the WPA was to create jobs through building highways, bridges, parks, schools, public works of art and other projects intended to have long-range value.

A former schoolmate of Roosevelt, George Biddle, played an important role in the implementation of the New Deal's arts programs. He motivated Roosevelt to recognize American artists and proposed that public murals would be a lasting and beautiful way to express the ideals of President Roosevelt's New Deal. Murals painted by Biddle and New Mexico's Emil Bisttram may be seen today in the Department of Justice Building in Washington, DC.

Between 1933-1943, in the depth of the depression, 167 known artists lived in New Mexico, all struggling to sell art in a time when many Americans had little money available even for necessities. The New Deal's Works Progress Administration Art Project provided an opportunity for artists to create artwork for public buildings, allowing them to remain independent, support their families, and enrich and enhance the community.

Many of New Mexico's best-known artists were involved in the New Deal program. The following are just a few: Pablita Velarde, Allan Houser remote , William Lumpkins, Maria Martinez, Ila McAfee, Gene Kloss, Raymond Jonson pic , Patrociño Barela pic, Gerald Cassidy, Pop Chalee, Will Shuster, Lloyd Moylan, Gisella Loeffler, William Penhallow Henderson, Bill Warder, Theodore Van Soelen, J. Ward Lockwood, Eliseo Rodriguez, Kenneth Adams, Fremont F. Ellis and Peter Hurd pic The area coordinator of the WPA's Public Works of Art Project was woodblock printer, painter and marionette-maker Gustave Baumann, a leading member of the Santa Fe art community.

By 1935, more than half of New Mexico's population was involved in one or another of the WPA projects . . . including the inspired Public Works of Art Project. More than 65 murals with varied subject material were created in New Mexico during the Depression. In addition to these murals, more than 650 paintings, ten sculptural pieces, and numerous indigenous Hispanic and Native American crafts were sponsored by the WPA.

Although many of the treasures created by these artists still exist in museums and public buildings today, some have been painted over, destroyed, or stolen during the course of the past 60 years. In 1993, the Secretary of State's office in Santa Fe encouraged the formation of the New Mexico New Deal Art Restoration Task Force, a group of New Mexicans interested in preserving the New Deal art treasures and in making the public more aware of their existence. The group has photographed a sample collection of the Depression artwork and is planning a traveling exhibit for fall 1997. The goals of the non-profit Task Force are: to continue to identify New Deal Art in the state; to help communities learn more about their public art, appreciate its value and preserve it; to determine, with the help of a professional conservator, the physical condition of the artwork; to assist communities in finding funding sources for restoration and conservation of their New Deal art.

In Albuquerque, New Deal Art can be seen at the US Federal Courthouse, at Carrie Tingley Hospital, the University of New Mexico Center for the Arts, the Jonson Gallery on the UNM campus and The Albuquerque Museum. In Santa Fe's US Post Office are two imposing triptychs composed of six panels painted by Gerald Cassidy and next door at the US Courthouse are six enormous landscapes painted by Santa Fe Master William Penhallow Henderson. Highland University in Las Vegas houses an immense mural by Lloyd Moylan, as does the courthouse in Gallup and the Administration Building at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. In Clayton, NM is a WPA Museum in which are displayed paintings, furniture, ironwork, dishes and colcha embroidery. Depression art exists in most of New Mexico's communities, and much of it has not yet been rediscovered.

Information about the artists who created New Deal Art in New Mexico and the locations of the artwork throughout the state can be found in a guidebook entitled Treasures on New Mexico Trails: Discover New Deal Art and Architecture by Kathryn A. Flynn, published by Sunstone Press, Santa Fe.

Inquiries about New Deal Art in New Mexico can be addressed to Kathryn Flynn, National New Deal Preservation Association on the web at www.newdeallegacy.org remote

LaGrone: Mercy

Oliver LaGrone
Carrie Tingley Hospital, Albuquerque, NM

Thanks to Annie P. Michaelis.

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to
Albuquerque and Central & Southern New Mexico
- Volume 12

Collector’s Resources


The Albuquerque Museum | 505-243-7255
Concetta D Gallery | 505-243-5066

Santa Fe

Gerald Peters Gallery + Peters Projects | 505.954.5700
Nedra Matteucci Galleries | 505-982-4631
The Owings Gallery | 505-982-6244
New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors | 505-476-5200
Windsor Betts Art Brokerage House rem 136 Grant Avenue | 505-820-1234
Zaplin Lampert Gallery | 505.982.6100


Mission Gallery | 575-758-2861


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