'Crash to Creativity': New light on New Deal's effects on Vermont
Bennington Museum's major fall exhibit examines local life during Depression
BENNINGTON, Vt. — The well-known joke around the Green Mountain state during the nation's greatest period of economic collapse in the 20th century was almost worn as a badge of honor for most Vermonters: "Depression? What Depression?"
This proud ethos, and more, are on display at the Bennington Museum's major fall exhibition, "Crash to Creativity: The New Deal in Vermont," on view now through Nov. 4.
While the above quip itself was a tongue in cheek gesture of hardscrabble self-awareness, a little known aspect of those years was a productive creative streak spurred on by the New Deal, according to Jamie Franklin, the museum's curator of collections.
"Artists, architects, writers, construction workers and civil employees, [had] work funded through Federal New Deal programs," Franklin said. "[They] helped to document the state's history, record the conditions of contemporary life during the Depression and recovery, and build infrastructure that continues to benefit us today."
Museum Director Robert Wolterstorff said that the show sheds light on this important, under-studied aspect of Vermont's history, focusing on the role of these many government-sponsored New Deal projects.
"The exhibition features photography, paintings, prints of post office murals, and architectural drafts that were sponsored through the government's New Deal programs," Wolterstorff said. "Powerful examples of regionalist and social realist paintings include Francis Colburn's `Charley Smith and His Barn,' and Ronald Slayton's quietly optimistic `The Planter.'"
Also on view as part of the exhibition is furniture from Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cabins, archival documentation of New Deal projects, and transcriptions of audio recordings of Vermonters created by the Federal Writers Project (FWP), targeted to help unemployed writers during the Depression.
The exhibition is divided into three major thematic areas: "Preserving the Past," "Inventing the Present" and "Building the Future."
Franklin said each is a building block to understand both origins and impact of programming during the Depression that sparked both employment, and creation, starting locally.
"One of the important themes that runs through the many New Deal endeavors that took place in Vermont is an emphasis on local history and a desire to preserve the past," Franklin said. "Historically-based projects covered much territory."
Such a broad range of expression, Franklin continued, ranged from a photographic survey of the state's architectural heritage and recreation of a historic Bennington County courthouse, to archival indexes created by the Historical Records Survey and paintings documenting historical events and persons of local significance commissioned by the Bennington Museum through the Federal Arts Project (FAP).
FAP played an important role during the Depression, and was administered on a state and regional level, with the goal of placing New England artists at work on creative projects closely allied to community interests.
"Artists such as Francis Colburn and Ronald Slayton participated in the Easel Paintings Division of the FAP, [and] were paid small stipends to produce a certain number of works in an allotted time," Franklin said. "The financial support allowed talented young people to make a living as artists in their own communities, even in rural parts of the country, where there was little infrastructure to support artists."
One of many such works in the exhibition is Colburn's 1939 oil painting "Charley Smith and his Barn."
Franklin pointed out how FWP writer Rebecca M. Halley described the vibe and ethos found in Colburn's work, noting how a "writer in one New Deal program deftly complemented a painter in another New Deal program."
"In June all activities except the inevitable chores and necessary eating and sleeping are suspended for the big event of haying. The steady hum of the mowing-machine rises from the meadow piece like the continued buzz of an angry bee. The even swaths fall in graceful ranks and lie in long straight rows forming a pattern threaded by the silver needle of the brook embroidering the maple bush. Sun-dried and fragrant the heavy grass is swallowed by the loader and disgorged in the huge barn mows. This is the stuff of which a farm is made," Halley wrote in 1939.
Many more such parallels are drawn in the exhibit, which also includes works from the Farm Security Administration's famed Photography Division. Also included in the show's future-legacy theme is a look at the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
The CCC provided manual-labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments. Vermont had one of the most fully developed blueprints for forest and recreational development in the entire nation and was fully prepared with public lands and development projects for the 40,800 men who were eventually assigned to CCC camps in the state.
In all, Franklin said the various themes and different media offered by show make historical connections to the Great Depression that still resonate today.
"Vermont's culture has long been shaped by an interdependent relationship between traditional values and progressive ideals," Franklin said. "Having survived moderate economic hardship since the mid-19th century, the Green Mountain state could not afford further losses. Despite a tradition of local pride and stubborn independence, the effects of the Depression opened Vermont to many aspects of Roosevelt's liberal New Deal."
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