H-SAN LUIS OBISPO

Mar 29, 2013 12:27 AM by Dan Shadwell, KSBY News

Local Spotlight: Depression era art on display

For just a few more days, you can see one of the best collections of Depression era art anywhere in the country.

In this week's Local Spotlight, the private collection of Arthur and Marilynn Rosenberg is on display through the weekend at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

As often happens in life, what was once plentiful, over time can become a rare find. Such is certainly the case with a dramatic collection of works painted during the Great Depression at a time when one out of four workers was unemployed. The people you see in the renderings made it onto the canvas because of artists employed by the government in the Work Projects Administration.


"It was a make-work program, really," explains Karen Kile, Executive Director of the SLO Museum of Art. "That's what WPA was and they didn't forget the artists and architects and people in the more skilled crafts. So an artist, if he met the favor of the bureaucrats, would be paid a pittance on the dollar to paint, and the canvasses would be sent to Washington, D.C., in some sort of grand plan, or no plan."

That art piled up in warehouses in the nation's capitol, much of it sold for scrap. What did survive became a casualty of changing taste.

"Galleries and museums took these works off the walls," Kile says. "Galleries put them in the basement because there were more popular new trends in the art field."

That is, until the Rosenbergs began their quest to find some of the pre-eminent works of that era. They began collecting in earnest while living on Long Island.

"They were buying these in the 70s and 80s," Kile says, pointing to a wall of portraits in the center of the room. "That was a time when they were under-appreciated."

The collection started with an oil rendition of an African American boxer and grew to include portrayals of all sorts of working Americans, struggling to stay afloat. Some carry political overtones such as the piece entitled "Solidarity." The image shows working-class men propping up a collapsed, white-collar businessman.

"It's a different portraiture style than you see at any other time," Kyle explains.

You can see the weight of the world in their eyes and a look back in time for just a few more days. The Rosenberg Exhibit continues through Sunday at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

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