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From the Vault: The importance of art

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Submitted Photo A young boy from Roswell’s Hispanic district — Chihuahuita — shows off the animals he made in an RMAC art class — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Aubrey Hobart

Curator of Collections and

Exhibitions

Roswell Museum and Art Center

Unemployment hovers around 20% and millions of Americans are additionally suffering in the wake of a natural disaster. Meanwhile, the president of the United States — a man that Canadian journalist Kenneth Whyte describes as “determined to succeed by any means necessary, subordinating questions of right or wrong to the good of his career and driving himself crazy with his hunger for power and control, his hypersensitivity to perceived threats to his independence and stature, and his overarching need to measure up” — believes he’s being unfairly targeted by a media smear campaign directed by the Democrats.

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I’m speaking, of course, about the Great Depression, which struck the U.S. in the 1930s. Triggered by the stock market bubble bursting in late 1929, the Great Depression was made worse by a massive drought in the over-farmed Great Plains, where the topsoil of millions of acres of land turned to dust and blew away. Americans from all walks of life were desperate for work, food and shelter, but President Herbert Hoover rejected the idea that it was the job of the federal government to help individuals through employment programs or direct payments. That principle lost him the 1932 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt who promptly put the New Deal into action, a program that provided all kinds of benefits directly to people in need.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was part of the New Deal that hired millions of Americans to build necessary public infrastructure like schools, hospitals, storm drains, bridges, airfields and roads. Additionally, the WPA oversaw Federal Project Number One, which was intended to provide jobs for America’s culture workers: authors, actors and artists. The hope was that they could provide entertainment and escape for the masses, but some politicians balked at the idea of supporting the arts during a crisis, viewing them as unnecessary for survival. Fortunately, Eleanor Roosevelt herself stepped in to defend the project. The artworks being produced, she argued, liberated society by expressing what many people could find no words to describe, and if they were controversial, then we had to realize that controversy is an important part of education. Federal One also established more than 100 community art centers around the country. Only four of those remain today, and one of them is right here in Roswell, New Mexico.

The Roswell Museum and Art Center (RMAC) was founded in the midst of the Great Depression by the Chaves County Archaeological and Historical Society, the Roswell Friends of Art, the city of Roswell and the WPA. The city at the time only had about 12,000 residents, most of whom were struggling financially, but they were so excited about the prospect of having a real museum in town that they generously donated what little extra they had to the project. With that money, the Archaeological Society constructed a building to house their history collection, but soon realized they didn’t have enough money to furnish or staff the facility. They contacted the WPA, which was willing to help if the museum would also become a Federal Art Center, showcasing traveling art shows in its exhibit space and hosting art classes and workshops. Officially, the museum was divided into the history side, run by the Archaeological Society, and the art side, run by the Friends of Art, and RMAC opened to the public in October 1937.

Almost immediately, there were tensions between the two sides of the museum. The history folks felt that art was getting all the attention and gallery time, and the art side dissolved because of some interpersonal issues in the group. However, the museum was popular and the public loved its exhibitions, classes and program offerings. By 1941, things had come to a head. The institution that had been founded by the community for the community was on the verge of collapse as the WPA began to disband. Fortunately, the visionary leaders of the city of Roswell stepped in, offering to make the museum a department of the city and using tax dollars to support its work. They understood that RMAC was a valuable resource for Roswell. It brought in tourists, provided a free arts education, offered recreation to military and civilians, acted as a social gathering space, and was the focal point for resident pride: A resource that many people even in much larger and more connected cities didn’t have. The city realized that even when world events made life scary and challenging — perhaps especially when world events make life scary and challenging — people need the arts. They need creativity and inspiration and escape and hope.

 

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