Public Art 2.0: A Whole New Deal

by Nancy Balik FitzGerald

FDR, Wondrous Alice® and the Pursuit of Happiness

I’m experiencing a surprising amount of incidental art exposure in my new habitat of San Francisco. Uncle Sam-funded art that was created during the Great Depression abounds on the walls of public places like Coit Tower, the Rincon Annex Post Office, the Beach Chalet at Golden Gate Park, and more.  (That’s not to mention all the splendid art that can be intentionally encountered.) Perhaps I’m just noticing it more now that I am intimately familiar with the breakthrough transformation of one such historical mural, which will be revealed below.

The fact is, in many American metropolises and burgs, if you visit a pre-WW II hospital, school, library, etc., you’ll likely come across one of over 200,000 works of public art commissioned and funded by the ambitious Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP), which operated from 1935-1943 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR’s) New Deal.


WPA mural designed by Lucien Labaudt, Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco c.1936


This federal program swooped in at a time when the unemployment rate loomed at more than twice the rate is it today (an excruciating 20%)—thus creating jobs for artists and an ensuing proliferation of public art. This resulted in murals, frescoes, easel paintings, posters, and sculptures in governmental buildings across the country.

Largely narrative and figurative, this body of work was accessible to all—it was every man’s art that entered into your world in the course of daily life. As a whole, these works told the story of the American experience from what author and historian Victoria Grieve calls a  “middlebrow cultural perspective.”

Now-iconic but then out-of-work visual artists such as Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Thomas Hart Benton, Louise Nevelson, Arshile Gorky, Diego Rivera and many other ultimately key figures on the modern art scene filled the roster of FAP artists who created mostly representational works of art under these auspices.

The catalyst for this program was social realist painter, lawyer and FDR friend George Biddle, who first suggested the idea of a government-funded art program to the President in a persuasive letter penned in 1933.  “The artists of America are conscious as they have never been before of the social revolution that our country and civilization are going through; and they are eager to express these ideals in permanent art form if they were given the government’s cooperation,” he wrote. “They would be contributing to and expressing in living monuments the social ideals you are struggling to express.”


Artist George Biddle works on a panel of his mural, Society Freed Through Justice, during the 1930s. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute


According to Biddle’s diaries, two weeks later, Roosevelt responded so enthusiastically to the idea that Biddle remarked, “It looks at last as if something may come of it.”

Something did, indeed! The program put thousands of American artists to work, who in turn, essentially democratized art. Outspoken California-based FAP sculptor, Beniamino Bufano (1898-1970) once commented, “The WPA /FAP has laid the foundation of a renaissance for art in America, it is the ‘open sesame’ to a freer art and a more democratic use of the creations of the artist’s hand and brain.”

Nearly seven decades later, WPA /FAP art, some in varying degrees of disrepair, can be found in public buildings throughout the contiguous 48 states.

In New York City hospitals alone, there are more than 500 historic murals painted by WPA /FAP artists. Notably so, Harlem Hospital Center is home to a rich collection of thematic murals, marking the first major commission in the United States awarded to African-American artists.

One Harlem Hospital mural in particular is quite a blockbuster for many reasons.


Muralist Vertis Hayes, c. 1938 Photographs and Prints Division,
 Schomburg Center
 for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library,
 Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundation







The eight-panel 1937 work, “The Pursuit of Happiness” by artist Vertis Hayes (1911-2000), sweepingly depicts the powerful story of African-American migration from slavery to the Harlem Renaissance. Fittingly, Hayes himself progressed from the South to the industrialized North, where he worked under the mentorship of French muralist Jean Charlot from 1934-35. Hayes was selected to be the Master Artist on the “Pursuit of Happiness” project at the tender age of 25.

As part of a recent major modernization of Harlem Hospital, three selected panels from Hayes’ epic mural have been dramatically re-presented in the form of a remarkable 13,000 square foot glass wall that serves as the new Patient Pavilion’s exterior facade on Lenox and 136th Streets –masterminded by Bronx-based architect Jack Travis in association with HOK Architects. This gleaming, grand-scale transformation, completed in 2010, was made possible by a confluence of architectural vision, technological prowess and ultimately, the wondrous Alice®.


Alice, Direct to Glass Printing, Photo by Melanie McLean, courtesy of General Glass International


Like her namesake in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, this Alice also dwells in the world of possibility and imagination, and her capacity is nothing short of extraordinary.

Alice is a machine. She lives and works in a white-coat environment– a cleanroom– in Secaucus, New Jersey at the headquarters of  General Glass International  (GGI)–the 110 year-old, fourth-generation Balik family business (that’s my own family, I proudly add!) that had the vision, track record, expertise — and guts — to take a multi-million risk on the high-tech digital printing machine, aptly dubbed Alice, just as the economy sank in 2008.

Israeli-made and one of very few in the United States, GGI’s Alice was selected by the HOK team to bring their ground-breaking vision for Harlem Hospital to life because “she” could deliver the top quality, flexibility, longevity and cost-effectiveness they sought.


Alice, Direct to Glass Printing, Photo by Melanie McLean, courtesy of General Glass International









Christopher Korsh, principal in healthcare for HOK, remarks, “The technology is so flexible, and the options are limitless. We want our buildings to communicate to their communities what they are all about. Alice gives us a whole new way to do this, as literally or figuratively, as we want. The sky’s the limit.”

As part of what Korsh describes as a “herculean” process, my cousin David Balik, GGI President, adds that there were many issues to master, given HOK’s objectives: “It had to look good in daylight from outside, look good in daylight from inside, and look good at night from inside and outside. To make it work, we had to constantly assess opacity, ink, consistency between panels, registration, framing, the budget….”


Sections of Vertis Hayes’ Pursuit of Happiness WPA-era mural printed on panes of glass during the Alice® printing process. Photo by Melanie McLean, courtesy of General Glass International


After nearly a year of close collaboration to ensure perfection, Alice executed the printing of “Pursuit of Happiness” onto 429 panes of glass with such acuity and precision that Vertis Hayes’ painterly brushstrokes can be appreciated from afar.


Harlem Hospital glass curtain wall, Photo by Melanie McLean, courtesy of General Glass International


This larger-than-life, award-winning project has not only re-invigorated the Hospital complex and its environs, it has infused new life into the historically and culturally significant story that lies within Hayes’ work.

I’d like to imagine that FDR, Biddle, Hayes et al would share the collective delight over how the wheels of progress have transported one important WPA-era mural to such stunning new heights.

Here’s to Public Art 2.0!


Nancy Balik FitzGerald is a writer/producer and public relations consultant living in San Francisco. Her work spans the worlds of medicine, health and beauty, the arts and entertainment. 


The Boulevardiers October 19, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Lovely illustrations and clear writing!!!

Mark Richardson October 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Very cool article. It has been a long time since I’ve been inside Coit Tower, but I may now return. The article makes me a little melancholy, because it is so unlikely that a similiar project could be created in our current political environment.

jackie October 20, 2011 at 11:24 pm

WOW! You are an incredible and talented woman who writes exquisetly… So impressed!!! Thank you!

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