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Celebrating Heroes: A Review of a Vassar Art Exhibition

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On December 2nd, I got in my car and drove to the Frances Lehman Lobe Art Gallery at Vassar College to interview Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Strauss Curator of Prints and Drawings. I was interested in finding out more about the most recent exhibition she had curated and was then on display. The exhibit was titled “Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s.” The exhibit ran through December and featured paintings and drawings from the collection of Stephen and Susan Hirsch.

In speaking with Patricia, I learned that the title of “Curator of Prints and Drawings” is no easy job. She is entrusted with the task of looking after about 10,00 drawings and prints from the early 15th, late 16th centuries to present. Before coming to Vassar in 2000, Patricia was in graduate school here in NY at CUNY Graduate Center. As a graduate student, she was lucky enough to have Linda Nochlin, a famous professor of art, as one of her instructors. Ms. Nochlin had attended Vassar in her day and was a great inspiration to Patricia. It became a sort of dream to her to work at Vassar where Linda Nochlin went and taught. As it turns out, when Patricia finished writing her dissertation and began searching for jobs, there were 3 different curator of prints and drawings positions open around the US. She secured the one at Vassar. In her own words, “it was kind of a dream come true.” Patricia has also previously worked at the High Museum in Atlanta as a research assistant and at the University of Georgia at the Georgia Museum of Art for 13 years. While there, she became comfortable working with art from the 1930’s/1940’s, as their collection was very strong in early 20th-century American pieces.

That came in handy with the “Celebrating Heroes” exhibition, where most works are from that very same time period. 45 of the 47 pieces come from the collection of Steven and Susan Hirsch who have been giving paintings and drawings to Vassar since the early 90’s. Patricia shared with me that the Hirschs began collecting art in the mid-80’s when they lived in Woodstock, a formerly buzzing art colony. Steve loved the art of the 1930’s and 40’s and he wanted to form a collection; He did so with the help of families of 20th-century artists still living in the area. His strong affinity for this time period sprung from the fact that it was before abstraction hit the mainstream in art and that there were so many prominent social issues that were being voiced by artists. During the WWII period, there was such a closeness among Americans (much like there was after 9/11) and it is easy to see evidence of this in some of the paintings.

One of the unique aspects of the exhibition is that it features several of the pieces submitted for Post Office Mural Projects around the country. In the 1930’s, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a series of federal programs, commonly referred to as the Second New Deal. As part of this deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created to give jobs to the unemployed building things such as schools and post offices. As a consequence, in the late 1930s, FDR launched the Post Office Mural Project. The aim of the project was to place several murals in the lobbies of thousands of post offices nationwide. As a resident of the Hudson River Valley, the president was particularly involved in the process of selecting art for five post offices nearby. He was involved from the start; helping to select the subject matter, reviewing the artist’s sketches as the work progressed, and making corrections as he saw fit. All artists would have most likely found out about the competition via bulletins that came through the mail or a press release in the local newspaper with the description of the post office and the dimensions of the sketch they should send in. The sketches would then be sent to Washington DC where pictures would be taken and the judges would judge them.

The major post office mural project that is represented in the exhibition is Anton Refregier’s panel series for San Francisco. Pieces by him cover about 3 walls of the entire gallery. According to Ms. Phagan, his project is one of the most important post office mural series from the 30’s and 40’s. Among other post office artists represented are John and Philo Ruggles for the Bridgeport Ohio post office and Andree Ruellan, who was awarded two post office murals due to the strength of her sketches; one in Georgia and the other in Virginia.

There is featured, however, one oil sketch done by Georgina Klitguaard. She won the panel in the Poughkeepsie post office that had to do with the historical Poughkeepsie, around the time of the 1840’s. Klitguaard was born in Spuyten Duyvil, New York attended Barnard College and the National Academy of Design, and lived near Woodstock for many years until she passed away. She was considered one of America’s leading landscape artists and had already done a small mural for a post office in Goshen. After submitting her original sketch, feedback returned saying that Roosevelt had requested the addition of College Hill, atop which sat the Poughkeepsie Collegiate School which his father had attended. Klitguaard added in the famed College Hill and her art was chosen as the winner. Also featured in the exhibition are two pieces by Arnold Blanche, a Woodstock artist who was well-known in the 30’s and 40’s, and Thomas Barrett, a Poughkeepsie native and American Scene Realist Painter prominent in the 30’s. Both artists had sent their studies to Washington in the hopes of being serious contenders but were unfortunately not chosen as winners.

After walking through the gallery discussing various paintings I asked Ms. Phagan about challenges she encountered while putting together the exhibition. She noted that a few of the artists are not very well known. To obtain information about them, she traveled to the national archives in College Park, Maryland and the Archives of American Art; There she conducted original research to obtain information about the artists. She felt that she needed to get some documentation in order to write the catalog and be knowledgeable when speaking about the exhibition. As her research progressed. she found out that three of the works they thought were only done by one artist were actually done by two artists who were brothers. This was completely new information and through online research, she was able to find one of the brother’s daughters and correspond with her to get more information. Another challenge that Ms. Phagan was faced with while curating the exhibition was the one-year time limit. Typically exhibitions can take anywhere from two to three years to put together, especially large ones, but that was not the case this time around.

As my time at the exhibit came to a close, I asked Ms. Phagan one last question: “What is your favorite part of this exhibition?” She smiled and said that it was probably seeing all of the works out in the galleries next to one another and across from one another. She explained that this is the only time she gets to see her mind’s work actually become tangible and that it is a great sense of intellectual and visual satisfaction to go from the idea and the drawing board and then see it manifested in reality.

Although the exhibition came to a close in December, Ms. Phagan is working with James Mundy, The Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and Lecturer in Art, to create a traveling version of the exhibition.

-Gabi Perpignand, Dr. Frank T Bumpus Intern in Hudson River Valley History

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