Art in the service of a government's agenda can rarely escape the taint of its origins. Consider the largely forgettable songs Woody Guthrie wrote for Reclamation in 1941. Guthrie, a working-class icon, traveled the Northwest in a chauffeur-driven government car, composing 26 songs in 30 days. Even the best, "Roll On, Columbia, Roll On," comes off as ironic today, when 14 dams block the river's flow.

Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Roll on, Columbia, roll on
Your power is turning our darkness to dawn
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Like many of the paintings commissioned 30 years later, Guthrie's lyrics offer a patriotic and expansionist nod to their government sponsor:

Tom Jefferson's vision would not let him rest
An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
So roll on, Columbia, roll on.

More than 60 years after Guthrie wrote this song, the Department of Interior still uses art to market its policies and technologies, as reporter Michael Kilian noted in the Chicago Tribune in 2003. "The Bush Administration calls it ‘Consensus Building Through Art.' I call it bureaucracy as art."

Kilian was critiquing a mural that is displayed in five sections in the museum on the ground floor of Interior's D.C. offices. It depicts every section of the agency's vast bureaucracy, including the Minerals Management Service and the Bureau of Reclamation. Under the guidance of artist Laurie Marshall, who had previously manufactured art for NASA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 40 staff members completed it in two days in 2003. Murals by committee, rather than fine art finished by recognized talents, are a more honest approach for Interior -- bald PR, rather than PR disguised as art.

The challenge offered to the painters commissioned in the 1960s and '70s -- "to depict the imaginative aspects" of Bureau of Reclamation dam sites -- was a misleading one. The artists were asked to project their own imaginations onto dams and other reclamation projects, much as the Bureau still does today with its popular laser-light shows at Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington state. But the agency expected them to satisfy its public-relations needs, though at least some of the artists tried to fulfill a greater obligation -- to create honest art. Sadly, their attempt to meet both expectations condemned them to the production of splendid failures. 

More works from the collection can be viewed at