Kansas Post Office Art
A New Deal for Public Art in the Free State
A documentary film that explores Kansas identity during the Great Depression and New Deal era through stories and conflicts about public art.
Between 1934 and 1943, the U.S. Treasury Department commissioned over 1,600 pieces of public art for newly constructed post office buildings across the United States. In the state of Kansas, twenty-nine of these murals and other artworks were installed in twenty-six post offices, as a part of this New Deal arts program. For eight decades, thousands of Kansans have walked past these public works of art - sometimes in appreciation, sometimes with a nod of familiarity, sometimes without even registering their existence. What can these murals tell about Kansas during the Great Depression era, and how do they continue to speak to Kansans today?
The “Section” New Deal arts project was tasked with making art publicly accessible to all Americans - a kind of democratization of art. Post office artists were directed to create works in the “American Scene” style, with emphasis on the local history, culture, and economy of the communities in which the art was placed. Communities were often consulted by artists about the artwork subject matter, and in some cases, competitions were held where community members were given direct input into choosing a mural subject. Of course, these interactions between artists, the federal government, and local communities did not always run smoothly. Conflicts over Kansas post office murals present a series of historical snapshots that help illuminate American, regional, and Kansas identity during the 1930s and early 1940s.
This film explores Kansas history and identity during the Great Depression and New Deal era through the stories of the post office murals of Kansas. What subject matters did Kansans feel represented their communities? How did local communities in Kansas react to and interact with these artworks when they were first installed? Whose voices are represented by these artworks and whose voices are missing? What was the importance of the artist in this process? And what do these artworks say about Kansans’ identities both in the past and in contemporary times?