Index of American Design
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  Dapper Dan
  Helen E. Gilman, American, born 1913, Shop Figure: Dapper Dan, 1937, watercolor over graphite

Index administrators vigorously and successfully pursued publicity for their project through radio programs, public lectures, articles in magazines and newspapers, and, most effectively, through frequent exhibitions of Index renderings. These exhibitions were launched not only in museums, art centers, and historical societies, but also in locations that were highly accessible to a wide cross section of Americans, such as the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, civic centers, and department stores. During the 1920s and 1930s department stores, not museums, staged the most innovative exhibitions of modern design; opening Index shows in these venues created a strong association between the project and one of the leading forces of modernism at this time. The administrators’ constant efforts to promote the Index helped make it one of the most familiar and widely appreciated of the New Deal art projects.

Photographic displays were developed to explain the operations of the Index project. “From Garret to Gallery” presented captioned photographs that traced the process of locating and copying objects. “The Making of an Index Drawing” showed the artists at various stages in their work.

Before the Index could complete its pictorial survey and publish a selection of the renderings in portfolios, the WPA and all its programs came to an end. When the United States entered World War II, unemployment was no longer the nation’s biggest problem; all resources had to be committed instead to the war effort. After the project ended in 1942, the Index of American Design was temporarily housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until it was officially allocated--as the property of the federal government--to the National Gallery of Art in 1943. Since then, the Gallery has organized many exhibitions of the Index that have traveled throughout the United States. Each year, hundreds of Americans have consulted the Index--through visits, letters, and telephone calls--seeking information about the artifacts it documents.

Mae A. Clarke, American, active c. 1935, Quilt: "Birds in Air," or "Old Maid's Ramble," 1938, watercolor, gouache, and graphite  

It would be difficult to claim that the Index of American Design had the direct impact on the development of American arts that its founders hoped it might. Art in the United States evolved in different directions after World War II from what Americans might have anticipated before that cataclysmic, world-changing event. In the late 1940s and 1950s many Americans preferred to ally themselves with the spirit of universality they perceived in abstract expressionism rather than seek the unique national identity they had longed for during the 1930s. The synthesis of fine and industrial arts that had inspired leading artists before the war found a greatly diminished following among the postwar fine arts community. Nevertheless, the Index had saved many American artists from severe poverty and the eventual abandonment of their skills and careers. In return, those artists bequeathed to us a collection of exquisite watercolors that remains, more than sixty years later, the most complete survey of this nation’s folk, popular, and decorative arts--including many objects that have been lost or damaged since they were portrayed in the Index. By means of its many exhibitions and wide publicity during the 1930s, the Index also introduced many Americans to a previously unfamiliar part of their cultural patrimony and to the idea that these humble artifacts may embody evidence of a definitively American “design.”


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