WPA art for the children of Chicago--even the ones in closing schools

It was before all of our time, really. We don't remember what those days were like. The WPA, or Works Project Administration, was a kind of Hail Mary pass of a program which employed the nation's literally starving artists (and engineers, and writers, even historians and ethnographers) during the Depression.

When rich men were jumping out of windows, and poor men were standing in bread lines, and the unemployment rate was around 25%, it's as if the federal government saw everything collapsing around it and thought, well, there's nothing else to do, let's try and record and build and beautify where we can.

So ethnographers went throughout the country recording regional folk music and archiving orchestral music. Writers went around creating travel books about each region of the country, then turned to collecting recipes and histories of regional American food traditions. Workers skilled and unskilled built things: Lake Shore Drive, Lincoln Park, the field house at Promontory Point. Sculptures were created to adorn post offices in particular.

And painters painted large public murals.

And we're not talking about Joe Semi-Talented Amateur here, either. We're talking about some of the greatest artistic talent in our nation's history.

Some of this stuff--the sculptures, the murals--still stands. Some of it still stands in Chicago. Some of it is in our public school buildings.

Chicago Public Schools, in fact, house the largest collection of WPA murals in the United States. As if that weren't enough, our schools in our old gritty city hold quite a few murals from much earlier--the Progressive Era--back when Teddy Roosevelt was funding public art, about a hundred years ago.

Some of this art, wouldn't you know it, is in schools slated for closure.

School murals were designed in collaboration with communities and principals and frequently feature small local stories of immigrants unique to the neighborhood, larger stories of American history, mythical representations of learning and justice, fairy tale themes in bright colors. Some are frescoes. Some are on canvas. All were designed to be in the very spots that they are in: roundels above stages, lunettes in alcoves above doors, murals lining hallways or on all four walls of grand rooms.

That lovely Heather Becker above, of the Chicago Conservation Center, has been involved with the restoration since 1994. In 2002 she catalogued it all and put together a big beautiful book, Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools. The project was the largest art restoration of any kind on the U.S. and has involved the children at many of the schools with the murals.

Becker had backing from the Board of Ed and then-CPS CEO Arne Duncan. She also thanks former city Cultural Commissioner Lois Weisberg. (That makes me sad, because not only is there no more Lois for Chicago, there isn't even her office any more in our new streamlined efficient city. We may have less public art and culture now, but we sure do aspire to place advertising on our treasured public spaces, so at least there's that, thanks to our arts-conscious mayor.)

Well Becker wasn't consulted, apparently, when someone over at CPS realized that something would have to be done with all that art in the schools about to be shuttered for good. CPS found a new vendor to do something.

That something isn't particularly clear at this time; no one over at CPS can say what exactly is going to be done with the murals. They're going to be stored, or "put into the new schools," or something. Later. Decisions will be made. You'd think they'd have a plan. You know, for dealing with priceless treasures that arguably aren't even theirs, and many of which require restoration still.

But one thing the something obviously involves is removing the art. Scaffolding, prying, scraping, all that.

So fine. That's fine. Needs to be done if we're not going to let those murals rot in their empty abandoned buildings.

But when should it be done? After school is out, right? Makes sense to hold off on those scaffolds, those workmen prying the school murals out of place, right?

Nope. How about now, says CPS. How about while school is still in session. While kids can watch. Before their end-of year concerts or graduations. Because a scraped and empty plaster surface is a nice adornment in an auditorium where an 8th grade graduation is taking place.

You may have noticed the flap on Thursday about mural removal at Trumbull School. Parents and advocates found out from a Wednesday memo that CPS was planning to come and remove the auditorium doorway lunettes the very next day. Those parents didn't think that was appropriate, so they called the media and they called the aldermen and by the time the news trucks started showing up a few hours in advance of the removal crews, CPS was constructing a new narrative, saying the whole thing was a mix-up, oops, it's not going to happen after all until school's out.

We CPS parents are used to the notion of a "mix-up" being retroactively applied to a terrible decision and poor planning. So it did not surprise us in the least that at some schools--schools with quieter, less obnoxious parents and advocates--the removal was already underway. So much for a mix-up.

Oh, wait, I forgot! These are failing schools. These children are about to be freed from their traps. Why should they care about their auditoriums and hallways and doorways and the murals that adorn them?

Anyway it's only six schools. Just six out of 50 closing schools. Schools you've likely never been to, likely never will see inside, likely have believed what CPS and the mayor have been telling you about how they are stagnant, failing traps, stifling opportunity and crushing dreams. Those schools, and some old musty murals, they're not your responsibility, and good riddance.


Maybe. Except for one little caveat.

These WPA murals, they belong to all of us. They're part of the public trust. They were made for Chicago's children, adorning walls in kindergarten classrooms up through high school. Walls which whisper and echo the message down through the decades, that kids are worth this, worth art on a vast scale that tells big stories and fills imaginations.

It's bad enough that it will no longer be possible to enjoy these works in their original setting and context. It's bad enough that they need to be removed and we are not being told where they will go or if they will be restored, or stored, or what.

But to peel them from the walls before the school year is over, before the wondering eyes of the children who go to school there, before the final ceremonies and celebrations of the year, this, to me, is too much. It's too far. It's too senseless and thoughtless and careless, everything CPS shows itself to be over and over and over.

Once again, it's just a little hard to suspend that disbelief.


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