Fed may have role in murals’ future

NEW ULM – The federal government may need to be taken into some kind of consideration when deciding the future of the murals at the former high school at 15 N. State St., based on information found at the federal General Services Administration (GSA) web site.

The Journal was tipped off about the possibility on Wednesday.

The issue of the murals came into the spotlight as District 88 announced imminent plans to sell the building. Both the district and the prospective buyer, Cenate LLC, expressed the intention, reflected in the draft agreements, to preserve and keep in place the school auditorium’s historic murals. But some local preservationists expressed concerns with the draft language, urging for even stronger protections against any unforeseen, unintended, destruction or removal of the works.

The murals were commissioned by the Work Projects Administration’s (WPA’s) Federal Art Project and painted by artist John Martin Socha in 1940, according to information in the Brown County Historical Museum archives. The murals were oil-painted on canvas in a St. Paul studio and exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis. They were brought to New Ulm and affixed permanently to the plaster walls of the school’s auditorium.

The GSA is the official custodian on behalf of the federal government for artwork produced under the aegis of several public programs during the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, notably the Works Progress Administration (WPA), states the GSA web site.

The thousands of murals, easel paintings, prints and sculptures created under the New Deal art programs are commonly referred to as WPA artworks, says a fact sheet expressing a GSA legal opinion on these matters also found on the GSA web site.

This classification proves misleading, says the fact sheet, as only one of the four programs, the Federal Art Project, operated directly under the WPA. A more accurate classification of the works of art created under the federal art programs of the 1930s and early 1940s is New Deal artwork, as they were created during the era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic recovery programs, says the fact sheet.

The Department of the Treasury created the first federal art program in 1933, when it initiated the Public Works of Art Project. Two subsequent programs – the Treasury Relief Art Project and the Section of Fine Arts – also originated under the Department of the Treasury, recaps the fact sheet. In 1935 the Works Progress Administration – an independently operating federal agency – established the Federal Art Project.

The Federal Art Project was the largest of the New Deal art programs in both its scope and the number of artists employed, says the GSA. Its most productive period lasted until 1939. During a massive reorganization of all New Deal relief programs, the project was renamed Art Program and reduced in size. Upon its discontinuation in 1942, the WPA’s Federal Art Project and Art Program had produced more than 108,000 easel paintings, 11,300 fine prints, 2,500 murals and 18,000 sculpture works. Completed works of art were either “loaned” or “allocated” to federal, state and local governmental entities and tax-supported organizations, or non-profit organizations. For each loan or allocation, paperwork, labels and metal tags accompanied the artworks.

During the operation of the WPA art program, it was stated that the federal government would hold full legal title to artwork on long-term loan, says the GSA fact sheet. Title to such artwork remains in the government today, says the GSA.

To establish the status of ownership of works that were “allocated,” however, GSA relies on federal property laws and on the regulations of the WPA, says the fact sheet.

It appears to be the intent, and it is the position of GSA, that “allocated” works of art were transfers of restricted title, continues the GSA fact sheet, after it reviews, with citations, relevant sections of regulations from 1934 and 1940. The receiving agency or institution received legal title to the works of art limited by the purpose stated in the allocation forms and by regulations, says the fact sheet.

For example, if a WPA work of art was allocated to be displayed in a public building by a state agency, and the state agency could no longer display the work, the legal rights to the work retained by the federal government could result in the reversion of the artwork to the federal government. The state agency cannot sell or otherwise dispose of the artwork, says the fact sheet. However, if the state agency would like to store the work, then display it again in the future, it can do so without triggering the reversionary rights of the federal government, says the fact sheet.

I could not be reliably verified Wednesday what specific classification, if any – loaned, allocated, other – may apply to the New Ulm works.

(The GSA fact sheet also examines another document, one that refers to works produced under the Public Works of Art Project initiated by the Department of the Treasury. The GSA says that document definitively outlines the conditions for ownership of such artworks. It determines that portable works of art are considered the property of the federal government, and artworks that are site-specific should be considered an inherent part of the building.)

“From the point of view of the new information – if it is correct that the New Ulm murals are owned forever by the federal government and can stay in place here for display – we’ve lanced the boil,” said local activist George Glotzbach who launched a last-ditch effort to ensure stronger protections for the murals. “If nobody can sell them or walk away with the murals, I’m OK with it… We are onto an amicable solution.”

“… It is not with unquestionable certainty that… the GSA is in charge, but… there appears to be some confusion as to the murals’ legal status,” said Reed Glawe, interim president of Cenate LLC. “The point of the agreement between Cenate and the district is to allow them some breathing room between now and July 2 (the projected closing date) to sort through this and determine the correct pathway for the murals, to ensure that they stay where they are and are cared for by an appropriate historical preservation society with the means and wherewithal to care for and preserve them in place. The approval or disapproval of the transaction by the district board tonight in no way detracts from that ultimate goal.”

Cenate LLC is comprised of local business and community leaders, including theater enthusiasts interested in operating the building’s auditorium. The idea is to eventually split responsibilities for the auditorium from responsibilities for the rest of the building. The latter part would eventually be converted into apartments, with the potential help of a historic designation and the resultant historic tax credits.

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