Philip C. Curtis: The New Deal and American Regionalism explores the story of one of Arizona’s most historically-significant artists from a fresh point of view, placing the beloved painter’s works within the context of the Great Depression decade of the mid-1930s through World War II. The exhibition highlights the work of Philip C. Curtis not only as a painter, but also as a museum administrator and arts advocate. His career exemplified the success of federal programs that fostered unprecedented artistic creativity across the country, and his efforts would ultimately change the course of Phoenix’s artistic legacy and institutions for many years to come.
Curtis, who came to Phoenix in 1937 to run the Phoenix Federal Art Center (the success of which eventually led to the founding of Phoenix Art Museum), emerged during a brand-new era for artists in the United States. After the stock market crash in 1929 and the subsequent economic devastation, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented sweeping reforms, including the Works Progress Administration (WPA), to bring relief to communities across the country. The WPA and other federal programs included features that specifically targeted artists, who were hired to do Post Office murals, produce documentation for the Farm Security Administration, make prints for graphic design projects, and record objects of ordinary use for the Index of American Design. During this period, the federal government became a major patron of the arts for a relatively modest investment.
As a result, a period of artistic abundance ensued, as a well as a significant shift in the national perception of artists. Art became a federally-funded phenomenon present in every state, with a rich regional variation that emerged naturally. The sheer amount of art produced in this period had never been seen before. Painters and muralists began to receive recognition as laborers and equal participants in the WPA. This era also had long-term effects for communities and cities. The building of civic centers often lead to the formation of museums and other arts institutions, and emerging artists who were encouraged at this early point became successful through collaboration with these organizations.
The experiences of Philip Curtis and his impact on Phoenix illustrate the ways that, through these programs, the influence of artists and art advocates could affect the life and future of a community. Using a broad-based, populist approach, the Phoenix Federal Art Center became a community center that made opportunities for art-making accessible to individuals of all social strata. Phoenix also received some important public art commissions, which can be seen around the city today (like the Post Office on Central Avenue), and some years later, the civic traditions established during this time became the catalyst for the founding of Phoenix Art Museum.
This exhibition features works by Curtis before, during, and after his time in Phoenix, as well as works by other artists supported by federal programs including two of the Center’s teachers, Lew Davis and Kathleen Wilson. The broad scope of the exhibition touches on a web of themes, all interconnected through the art and personal history of Curtis within the era of the late 1930s to the end of World War II. The exhibition explores the different styles that Curtis experimented with, including Post-Impressionism and abstraction. Works by other artists touch on themes from Arizona geography and heavy industry to women artists, and Native American. Images of Arizona’s Japanese internment camps, instituted at the beginning of World War II, will be featured on text panels.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of annual donors to the Museum.
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Exhibition Page: Philip C. Curtis, Landscape with Destruction (detail), 1944. Watercolor on illustration board. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Gift of the Philip C. Curtis Restated Trust U/A/D April 7, 1994.
Left Header: Philip C. Curtis, Man in Military Cap, 1942. Watercolor. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, gift of the Philip C. Curtis Restated Trust U/A/D April 7, 1994.
Right Header: Philip C. Curtis, Spacial Study, 1944. Tempera on illustration board. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, gift of the Philip C. Curtis Restated Trust U/A/D April 7, 1994.