At Work: Prints from the Great Depression at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts
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At Work: Prints from the Great Depression at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts
Thomas Hart Benton, Island Hay, 1945, lithograph, Art © Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT.- The Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the American West Center at the University of Utah present At Work: Prints from the Great Depression, an exhibition exploring the role of work and art during one of America’s most trying eras. At Work prompts contemporary questions about the place of labor in our lives today, a theme that is further explored through a series of companion programs and projects.

The At Work exhibition was organized through the collaborative efforts of AWC director Matthew Basso, University of Utah Department of History graduate student Emily Johnson, and UMFA curator Donna Poulton. At Work will be on view at the UMFA from February 10 to May 6, 2012.

“Remembered as one of the most devastating periods in the history of the United States, unemployment and the Great Depression are linked in people’s minds for good reason,” says Dr. Basso. “At its height, the Depression left more than 20 percent of Americans out of work, and iconic images of Dust Bowl migrants and soup kitchens dominate our picture of 1930s America. But as the exhibition At Work reveals, Depression-era artists were equally interested in depicting people at work.”

At Work features more than 60 prints by Thomas Hart Benton, Herschel Levit, Claire Mahl and dozens of other printmakers, many of whom were among the 5,000 visual artists employed by the federal government in the 1930s. Their prints provide a complex portrait of the place of work in the social politics of the era. They illustrate, for example, that many white-collar workers were forced to take blue-collar jobs after the collapse, and that government programs designed to support family breadwinners often left women with limited opportunity for paid work.

Printmaking became a particularly popular artistic mode of expression for Depression-era artists. Inherently democratic, the medium enabled printmakers to easily create and cheaply distribute copies of their work. Many artists celebrated the working class through their prints, creating dignified images of farmers, railroad workers, seamstresses, and street vendors.

At Work features some similarly heroic images of the working class, with prints depicting muscular men building dams, drilling oil or working in factories. The exhibition draws parallels between the hard labor of these men and images of women working at home, serving as seamstresses or cooking meals. A less heroic portrait of the working class is also present in At Work, as some artists portrayed hardened, stoop-shouldered victims of the economic crisis.

The prints featured in At Work are drawn from the collection of Marcia and Ambassador John Price.

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