Margaret Bullock did not expect the latest exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum to be so timely. And it’s fair to say she didn’t want it to be timely, either.
That’s because “Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s” focuses on a time of economic catastrophe in the United States, when the federal government commissioned artists to paint murals and complete other works, as part of the massive effort to get people earning paychecks during the Great Depression.
“It’s strange to suddenly be so relevant in a contemporary time with a topic like this,” said Bullock, interim chief curator at TAM.
The exhibit opened Feb. 22. A week later, Washington state reported its first death from COVID-19. Two weeks after that, the Tacoma Art Museum joined the growing list of public spaces to close its doors temporarily, in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The national economy was brought to a near standstill. Millions of people lost their jobs. Unemployment claims soared.
And now stories about coping with an enormous economic calamity some 90 years ago have taken on new meaning. So while you can’t see the exhibition until the museum reopens, the story it tells is still worth sharing.
Bullock chipped away at the research for this show over the course of 18 years, reviewing works of art but also documents from the National Archives and other places.
“Some of the administrators felt that art was as important to everyday life as food and shelter, and that it was a necessary thing for the human spirit,” she said.
A painting called “Miners at Work” – 5 feet tall, 12 feet across – was up at the old Renton Post Office. The building has since become city offices. The mural on loan to TAM for the exhibition is painted in dark colors, showing nine men working in a coal mine, with a donkey hitched to a wagon full of coal.
The very fact that Renton used to have a coal mining industry has been forgotten by many, which is in part where the exhibition gets its name. Bullock says it’s also true that much of the art that came out of the various public works projects in the 1930s remains hidden in plain sight.
“I go into these post offices for example, and I’ll be standing there, staring at this work and taking pictures and taking notes, and people will come in to buy their stamps and they’ll stop and look at me, and then look up,” she said. “And I get the comment all the time ‘Oh I never knew that was there.’”
Or people see the works, but don’t know the stories behind them. In one case, a postmaster came out and told Bullock the mural was painted in the 1970s to depict the postmaster at the time.
“And it said very clearly in the corner ‘1937,’” she said. “It was just so funny. It had been given a new life by the people that live with it.”
Video by Parker Miles Blohm/KNKX
The exhibition is scheduled to close Aug. 16, and it’s anyone’s guess whether museums like TAM will be able to throw open their doors before then.
“That’s the question we all kind of don’t want to ask,” Bullock said. “The reality is, this work doesn’t disappear. Much of this work belongs to museums and is on view in regular rotations. And there’s still lots of work out in the community. That’s the thing we wanted to draw attention to.”
TAM is offering much of its permanent collection online for viewing, if you want to get even more art. And the Washington State Historical Society, just down the street, is collecting information and artifacts from the public, an attempt to make sure that our current emergency does not become another forgotten story.