During the depths of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs created jobs for millions of Americans. Along with constructing schools, courthouses, parks, dams, and other large-scale public projects, a group of artists documented the works of craftspeople across the country.
An exhibit closing Feb. 12 at the Frasier History Museum in Louisville features Kentucky’s contributions to the Federal Art Project’s Index of American Art.
Frasier President and CEO Penelope Peavler says the Kentucky part of the Index was curated by Adele Brandeis, niece of Louisville-born U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. She travelled the state visiting private homes and museums to find the finest examples of 19th century arts and crafts that needed to preserved for future generations. Then artists were hired to paint watercolors of each of those items. The Kentucky paintings along with watercolor depictions from other states were compiled into the Index of American Art.
“I think one of the great benefits of the Index was to elevate the craftsperson as an important member of America’s cultural community,” says Erika Doss, American studies professor at the University of Notre Dame. “To say craftspeople are just as important and craft is just as important as fine arts.”
The Frasier exhibit, called Kentucky by Design, features a collection of 85 of those paintings coupled with the original objects that inspired them. Peavler says the watercolors have been stored at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“All the ones that we’re showing in this exhibition we have here got framed up particularly for the exhibit,” Peavler says. “We’re bringing things to Kentucky that haven’t been seen in 80 years since they were hand painted.”
The Frasier exhibit is the first show to highlight the contributions of a single state to the Index. Through the Federal Art Project, the Index helped ensure that the arts of a then-bygone era would not be lost to the ages.
“One of the main points here is to take time to look at what’s around you and to see the beauty in the everyday,” says Peavler. “This is something that modern Americans could benefit from.”
The Kentucky by Design exhibit is featured in a new Kentucky Muse documentary produced by KET.
Visit the Frazier Museum’s website