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The fine art of bureaucracy

Artists helped further a government agenda


The U.S. government has often commissioned artists to further its agenda, but rarely on the scale seen from 1968 through 1974. That's when the Bureau of Reclamation ran an ad in an art magazine, soliciting artists "to depict the imaginative aspects of the Reclamation Program."

The 40 selected artists enjoyed all-expense-paid tours, including helicopter flights over the Bureau's major dam sites. The career opportunities were promising -- an opening at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., with a 73-page accompanying color catalogue and a traveling exhibition to follow.

Kenneth Callahan, Ralston Crawford, Richard Diebenkorn, Lamar Dodd, Norman Rockwell and other well-regarded artists earned undisclosed fees for the 355 paintings, etchings and prints they produced in the course of the project. The Bureau hoped that the artists' work would prove that excavation sites, dams, penstocks, spillways, batch plants, turbines, power-lines, trash-racks, irrigated fields, reservoirs and feeder canals could be things of beauty. But the results were far more ambiguous.

It's easy to see why the Bureau sought the aid of artists. The division of the Department of the Interior charged with developing water resources in the country's arid lands, Reclamation was under mounting pressure in the late 1960s. The agency's high Western dams might be regarded as possessing all the grandeur of Middle Eastern mosques and European cathedrals, but as Americans grew more environmentally knowledgeable, they reassessed the thousands of major water projects. With the passage of landmark environmental legislation -- including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 -- the Bureau found itself on the defensive and facing threats of litigation.

For the Bureau, highlighting the "imaginative aspects" of dams was a device to ease its troubled customer relations. Some of the artists it recruited seemed keen to support the cause.

In Olympus Dam, by Xavier Gonzalez, a tempera that shows Longs Peak in Colorado, the dam itself emerges from a wash of earth tones in the landscape, its structure suggesting architectural columns from the classical age. The columns appear to be buttressing the peak, as if the engineering feat were part of the foundation of the mountain's grandeur.

Flaming Gorge Overlook by Dong Kingman depicts southern Wyoming's Flaming Gorge Dam as a popular attraction. Tourists ride bicycles, stroll, meditate, take photographs and sketch. The dam itself becomes a giant easel, its concrete edifice a screen that reveals human desires and expectations.

Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, whose high profiles in the 1960s helped damage the Bureau's reputation beyond repair, come in for an unusual amount of attention. Campsite at Dawn, an oil on panel by Dean Fausett, strives, at first glance, to show how placid and serene the reservoir named Lake Powell could be. The campsite, which Fausett used while working for the agency, lies near the Escalante River Delta in the reservoir.

But on the water of the reservoir, the cliffs in the distance and the wispy clouds overhead, the early-morning glow appears almost apocalyptic. The Bureau's notes on the poster for the painting try to simplify the complex mood of this piece: "It is typical of the magnificent scenery which is attracting recreation-seekers to Lake Powell from all over the United States."

The most famous painter in the group was Norman Rockwell, who needed the job less than the other artists did. Maybe for that reason, his Glen Canyon Dam forces audiences to view the dam from an Indian perspective. The dam is a gigantic tourniquet that fish will not be able to get around. Still, Rockwell's painting suggests that the Indians' determination to survive will serve them in good stead: They confront the dam rather than shrink from it.

Despite their quality and their occasional stabs at complexity, the artworks attained neither genuine artistic credibility nor longevity. Journalists and scholars largely ignored them, and the Bureau itself proved an indifferent curator. By 1990, roughly half the commissioned pieces of art had been lost, stolen or returned to the painters.

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 http://www.usbr.gov/museumproperty/art/