In collaboration with the National Gallery’s Digital Experience Division and Department of Modern Prints and Drawings, Dean Steven Nelson has recently initiated a digital project to catalyze research on the Index of American Design (IAD). Between 1935 and 1942, under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, the US government commissioned this compendium of over 18,000 watercolor paintings documenting works of folk, decorative, and industrial art created throughout the United States. As a Federal Art Project, the IAD was intended to provide gainful employment to the over 400 artists, located throughout the country, who painted its many entries. Initiated on the eve of World War II and amid nationalist preoccupations, the project was also understood by its founders as a kind of research initiative, compiling visual materials through which the origins of a distinctly American aesthetic might be unearthed and consequently used by the country’s up-and-coming artists and designers.
Upon the project’s termination in 1943, the IAD was added to the collection of the National Gallery of Art, where it now remains. Today, the IAD offers a variety of visual resources to scholars considering histories of national identity, design, and diverse art and craft traditions in the United States. Since both the IAD’s watercolor paintings and the objects that they document were created by people of varied class levels, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and geographical settings, this collection is particularly valuable in its ability to support research centered upon artists and craftspeople belonging to demographic groups too often marginalized in art-historical study. Beyond its scholarly potential, however, the IAD has also found great value among the general public. In recent years, for example, its paintings have been consulted in person at the National Gallery by viewers who hold a more personal stake in the collection: for example, by family members of the IAD’s watercolor painters, and by contemporary craftspeople working in the various media portrayed. Beyond acting as audiences for these works, these members of the public, through their knowledge of ancestry or technical expertise, enrich the National Gallery’s understanding of its own collection as well as art-historical research as a whole.
Despite the widespread interest that the IAD draws—and the scholarly and practical benefits of its visibility—the collection’s scale and material fragility present barriers to public access that in turn inhibit research. Composed of thousands of light-sensitive works on paper, the IAD cannot be physically exhibited in its entirety, nor in perpetuity. The Center’s new digital project will thus provide alternative methods through which scholars as well as the general public can connect online with the IAD, its histories, and the various artists who brought it to life.
Research Associate: Lauren Taylor
Robert H. Smith Research Associate: Matthew J. Westerby