The Voice of America headquarters in Washington D.C. houses several unique American art treasures from the New Deal era.
Ben Shahn’s The Meaning of Social Security is the most prominent of the murals, and graces two sides of a corridor at the Wilbur J. Cohen building. Seymour Fogel's The Security of the People and The Wealth of the Nation are located in the Independence Avenue entrance lobby.
Shahn built his expansive, multi-panel mural around the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, giving pictorial form to the president's June 8, 1934 address on the Social Security legislation:
"This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated from this man-made world of ours."
The Social Security Act was passed on August 14, 1935 as part of the New Deal program of sweeping social reforms that responded to the economic crisis of the Great Depression.
Shahn's mural vividly captures the ambitions of the New Deal programs and also serves as an example of government efforts to extend patronage to the arts in the 1930s.
The growth of the arts was encouraged and administered by the federal government. As a result, original works of art grace many federal buildings in Washington, D.C. Murals and sculpture were envisioned by the architects to embellish the thrifty design, enhance the workplace, and contribute to a growing national collection of fine arts.
The art was commissioned in 1940 through a national competition.
The Artist: Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was born in Kovno, Lithuania and migrated to the United States in 1906. A son of craftsmen, the artist grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., exposed to both observant Judaism and working-class socialism. Shahn studied at the Art Students League, New York University, City College of New York, and later at the National Academy of Design. He also took art classes in Paris in the 1920s and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. As a struggling, politically active painter during the Great Depression, Shahn's first critical recognition came from his controversial Sacco and Vanzetti series (1931-1932). This work secured his reputation as a "social realist" devoted to fighting injustice and promoting the human rights of underprivileged peoples. Shahn was prolific in a variety of media: paintings, prints, photographs, posters, drawings, murals, stained glass, and mosaics, gravitating towards work that could reach a wide audience. Today, his work can be found in cultural institutions worldwide.
"I feel that the whole Social Security idea is one of the real fruits of democracy. There may be some limitations to my powers of exposition, but at least it is my aim to make the mural a clear and feeling picture of Social Security, and, I hope, one that may be understood by average Americans."
- Ben Shahn, Letter to Edward Bruce, Section of Fine Arts and Painting, July 14, 1941
Restoration and Conservation of the Mural
The Shahn mural underwent conservation efforts in 2012 for damage from an August 2011 earthquake. The conservation efforts contracted through the U.S. General Services Administration included precision paint and repair work using modern, reversible materials to stabilize cracks, repair chips, and preserve the mural. The art had undergone an extensive conservation effort in 1993 and public access to it was greatly improved.
"The Meaning of Social Security" and the Hearing Room Lobby in the Cohen building were rededicated on October 17, 1995 to the memory of Ben Shahn and all artists whose works grace federal buildings.
While the historic pieces are included in the VOA public tour, art groups sometimes arrange visits solely to view these cultural assets.
The auditorium at the Cohen building, which is not a part of the general public tour, features a mural by Philip Guston, titled Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family. The viewing of that piece of art can be done through advanced special request.
Excerpted from a brochure written by Guest Curator Laura Katzman, Associate Professor of Art, chair of the Art Department, and director of Museum Studies at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia (Katzman is now Associate Professor of Art History at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia).
The brochure is available from VOA Public Relations, 330 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20237; phone: (202) 203-4959; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.