In her report titled, “University of Minnesota Gallery of Art,” with “Mrs. Lawrence 25-year report” written in pencil across the top, long time gallery director Ruth Lawrence provided a 24 page background on all of the activities of the Gallery over the course of 25 years. A large portion of the report — nearly seven pages — outlined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) work projects assigned to the Gallery. Ruth reflected, “By February 6, 1938, significant changes were taking place, but greater ones were ahead. On that date the Emergency Relief Works Progress Administration assigned a project of 20 workmen to the Gallery.”
From 1938-1942 WPA workers were assigned to annual work projects in the University Gallery. The main duties of their work consisted of developing an art reference service to support instruction at the University. Workers also created circulating exhibitions comprised of visual aids for teachers. These visual aids were matted, framed, and compiled by the WPA employees and distributed by the Junior League Clubs of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth. Exhibitors from elementary and secondary schools, teachers colleges, and other small arts organizations throughout the state could rent the visual aid exhibits for a fee that covered postage.
Found within WAM’s collection of exhibition catalogues was a stapled report titled, “Visual Aids to Teachers of Art” that included descriptions of the exhibits and how they could be rented. A booklet titled, “Horses in Art, Exhibition No. 101” was also found. This booklet, which contains instructions and a sample curriculum, accompanied the exhibit materials. Exhibits were comprised of 10 reproductions of old and contemporary artwork that were mounted to boards, designed to be set in the grooves of a chalk well and rest against classroom blackboards.
After the outbreak of WWII, all WPA work at the University was re-assigned to the war effort, and the art reference service was scaled back to provide resources to University instructors and students only. Ruth reflected, “All traveling exhibitions were stopped. During the war years unfortunately, these were destroyed by a mysterious fire in the storage or fan room, beginning in the organ loft.”
Thanks to the accessibility of the Minnesota Daily’s PDF Archives, more information about the mysterious fire is gleaned when a search of the PDF Archives provided a copy of the November 5, 1942 edition of the newspaper, which contains the following headline, “Fire Destroys Northrop Art Works.” The article begins,
A fire of undetermined origin burning for more than half an hour in the organ blower room, 303 Northrop auditorium, yesterday destroyed almost all of the art displays, and equipment stored in the room.
About $250 worth of picture frame moldings, ten elementary school art exhibits and numerous picture display board were burned.
Thanks to the WPA project reports, the existence and preservation of posters and catalogues, as well as additional resources such as the PDF Archives, we are able to learn more about the unique services and programs that the Gallery once provided.
Rebecca Wilson is a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota, completing a minor in Museum Studies. She also serves as a Visitor Services Assistant at the Weisman Art Museum.