Origin Story

Having worked at the Roswell Museum and Art Center for over three years, I've noticed patterns in the remarks of our visitors, usually along these lines:

"This place is a lot bigger than I imagined it would be!"
"I had no idea this place existed!"
"How did this collection end up here in Roswell?"

Image courtesy of http://www.whosgotthemap.com/roswell-that-ends-well/
The last question in particular has intrigued me. I mean, how did a museum like RMAC end up in Roswell, a relatively conservative, isolated town located about three hours away from the nearest urban centers? Today, I want to tell you that story, because it's an important one.

In 1935, during the midst of the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, launched the Federal Art Center Program. The objective of this project was to bring the sort of arts and cultural enrichment available in larger cities to areas that would not normally have access to them. Smaller, more rural communities were a particular focal point, but art centers were established in cities as well.

Children's class taking place at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
The South Side Community Art Center, which remains open to this day.
How it worked was that a local community would assemble a group of sponsors, who would then fill out an application requesting funds for an art center. Their application would include a plan for funding the institution, as well as the types of programs they expected to operate there. If approved, the WPA. would help cover the expenses of construction, and supply a small staff to operate the institution. The new art center acted as a conduit between the local community and the national interests of the WPA, hosting a mixture a local programs and national exhibits. Between 1935 and 1942, over one hundred of these centers opened around the country.

One of these happened to be the Roswell Federal Art Center.

The Roswell Federal Art Center back in the 1930s. It's expanded substantially since then.
The Museum was designed with a Spanish Colonial Revival aesthetic.

One of the many exhibits to come through the Roswell Federal Art Center.
Opened in 1937, the Museum was sponsored by the local archaeological and historical society (now the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico). Initially planned as a facility for the historical society's permanent collection, the Art Center quickly developed a more arts-related focus when it received co-sponsorship from the WPA. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Center hosted dozens of traveling exhibits through the Federal Art Project. Local residents could see new art from California, New York, and other places they might never get the chance to visit. They saw contemporary mosaics, Daumier lithographs, and textiles, in addition to the usual painting, drawing, and sculpture. They could take classes in painting, drawing, and even what we would now consider interior decorating. It was, in short, a place to receive arts enrichment.

NMMI cadets attending an exhibit of Daumier lithographs, 1939.
It was by no means a perfect system. The arts focus of the Federal Art Center remained a point of contention between the WPA. and local historical society, which had initially envisioned an archaeological museum. Ongoing racial tensions of the time meant that Hispanic children did not take classes at the Museum itself, but rather at the local parochial school. Supplies were limited (at one point the Museum had no typewriter of its own), and viable staff was in chronic shortage. In other words, the Museum experienced issues with clarity of mission, shortages of funding and staff, and questions of relevance and audience, issues that remain familiar to today's museum professionals. Yet the Roswell Federal Art Center was there, and in its own imperfect way, provided much-needed arts access to its community, a role that it has served for the last 80 years. After the WPA closed in the 1940s, the City of Roswell took over the Museum (and we remain extremely grateful for their ongoing support). As a result, RMAC is one of a handful of federal art centers that continue to operate. And it owed its beginnings in part to the federal government.

The original museum building, now known as Founders Gallery.
I'm telling you this story because it provides a stark contrast to recent events. Readers have most likely heard of the rumors to cut funding to the NEA and NEH, programs that cost a grand total of .02%-.03% of the federal budget. The money isn't the main thing aggravating me here (though it is an important source of grant-related funding). I know this isn't the first time these programs have been threatened to have their funding cut, and believe me, as a museum professional I'm used to "doing more with less," and "wearing many hats," to invoke the favorite cliches. No, what bothers me is that this underscores for me how little our society as a whole seems to value the arts and culture. Despite numerous studies attesting to the importance of the arts in education, the benefits of having the arts in hospitals and other healing environments, not to mention the benefits of having access to the arts in general, it's the first line to get slashed in any budget. Despite its clear importance to our well-being, the arts are considered luxuries, and it angers me that museums, galleries, and related institutions are constantly having to justify their mere existence, even when they help economic development.

We should really view the arts as the necessities they are. Art in any form, visual, musical, literary, is what affirms our humanity. It is how we articulate our response to the world and all our myriad reactions to it. Art and culture enables us to rise above mere existence to give meaning and expression to our lives. To deny the importance of the arts is to deny part of what makes us human.

The WPA had its flaws, to be sure, but it at least recognized the importance of making the arts available to the public, and we're still living with that legacy to a degree today. Does it aggravate me that I live three hours away from anything? Absolutely. But we're providing a much-needed service, and for that, I will always be grateful to the federal art center program for its willingness to reach out to underrepresented communities.

Image courtesy of http://www.flickriver.com/photos/newmexico51/tags/thirties/
 If that isn't a mission worth getting behind, I don't know what is. And as long as we have a community, RMAC will find a way to keep the arts available, just as we have for the last eighty years.