With the Great Depression
in the 1930s, an opportunity to foster the development of this new art
seemed to present itself in the form of federal work-relief programs for
unemployed artists. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in
1933, millions of American workers had lost their jobs and become destitute.
To help alleviate the economic misery of the nation, Roosevelt instituted
a series of work-relief programs, the most comprehensive and lasting of
which was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Index of American
Design was one unit of the Federal Art Project (FAP), a WPA program for
artists. The Index project began at the end of 1935 and continued for just
over six years, providing temporary--and desperately needed--work for about
one thousand artists.
||Wayne White, American, 1890-1978, Civil War Drum, 1940, watercolor over graphite
The idea for the Index of American Design came from two
women in New York City, both involved directly or indirectly with modern
design. Ruth Reeves was a textile designer who occasionally consulted the
Picture Collection at the New York Public Library in search of fresh inspiration.
There she met Romana Javitz, head of the collection, who regretted that
her picture files did not provide modern designers like Reeves with adequate
visual resources from American material culture. Reeves and Javitz discussed
the idea of creating a pictorial guide specifically for American design.
When the Federal Art Project began they proposed their scheme to Holger
Cahill, its director. Cahill, an authority on both American modernism and
folk art, as well as an advocate of modern industrial design, enthusiastically
endorsed their plan. Once the Index started as a unit of the FAP, Reeves
joined its administrative staff while Javitz remained at the library. Two
other important Index administrators were Constance Rouke, an eminent cultural
historian and folklorist who became editor of the Index, and Adolph Cook
Glassgold, a leader of the modern design movement in New York who became
national coordinator of the Index.
|Charles Henning, American, active c. 1935, Maria
Stohlern Dower Chest, 1938, watercolor over graphite
The Index opened a central office in Washington, D.C., and
eventually extended its operations to thirty-four states and the District
of Columbia. Every region and state in the country had produced artifacts
that the project leaders deemed worthy to record in the Index, and they
hoped to represent them all. Northeastern states had the most active projects,
illustrating artifacts made locally as well as some brought there from
other places such as this Civil
War Drum and Dower Chest. A
number of western and southwestern states also made significant contributions
to the Index. To locate works for inclusion in the survey, state administrators
sought the help of local museums, historical societies, universities, antique
dealers, and private collectors. They also printed notices in newspapers
and distributed questionnaires to solicit information on the whereabouts
of artifacts. Once a sufficient number were found, lists were drawn up
and sent to Washington for approval. This step aimed to eliminate redundancy--very
similar objects represented by more than one state--and to ensure that
each rendering supported the project’s goals.
||Gordena Jackson, American, 1900-1993, Native American
Presentation Basket, 1938, watercolor over graphite
The Index pictures the material culture of our nation’s
past, but it was not intended to be an antiquarian catalogue. Its creators
were dedicated modernists who hoped that Americans would recognize a unique,
national style in the design of Index artifacts. This recognition would
help accomplish their most cherished goal: the development of a truly American
modern art. In the 1930s “national design” meant the visible
expression of the collective, creative spirit of a nation, which was embodied
in its works of art and, above all, its folk art. The Index founders, like
other modernists of the day, maintained that a genuinely American modern
art would express anew the simplicity and the powerful, abstract design
seen in such appealing folk objects from our past as a hand-carved toy
horse from Pennsylvania. Emerging from America’s vernacular, egalitarian
spirit, this modernism would also synthesize the fine and applied arts.
It would reform industrial design so that manufactured items could become
paradigms of modern art for everyday use, enhancing the lives of all Americans.