The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Laboring for Art Access: The Outreach Exhibition Initiatives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Federal Community Art Center Project

Sara Woodbury
College of William & Mary

For over a century, art museums and related cultural institutions have increased collections access through outreach exhibitions. Outreach exhibitions, located in schools, libraries, and other social or educational spaces distinct from galleries, enable museums to demonstrate their commitment to public service by literally and figuratively mobilizing their collections. Yet these exhibitions also highlight the significance of community involvement in curation, with custodians, teachers, and other personnel contributing to the logistics of installation and the shaping of interpretation. This article considers the institutional and community relationships underpinning art outreach exhibitions by examining two interwar initiatives: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions and the federal community art centers (CACs). One program focused on expanding the Met’s presence within New York City by circulating objects from the permanent collection to different sites in the metropolitan area. The other introduced viewers to contemporary American art on a national scale. Both initiatives sought to demonstrate institutional relevance by broadening access to original works of art, but the curatorial staffs in each organization did not work alone. Interactions between non-museum staff and volunteers as well as museum personnel shaped their appearance and content, from the selection of appropriate sites to the maintenance of objects.

Keywords Outreach exhibition / Metropolitan Museum of Art /  federal community art centers / Federal Art Project / community art center


In the November 1938 issue of the monthly Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Richard F. Bach, the museum’s Director of Industrial Relations and supervisor of outreach work, discussed ongoing efforts to exhibit collections beyond the museum’s galleries.1 The article emphasizes to the Met’s members the benefits of outreach, with Bach concluding that “it is by such extension activity that our citizens in always increasing numbers may gain the conviction that the Metropolitan Museum is their museum” (“A Museum on the March” 252). In the article, Bach assesses an initiative called the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions. Designed to provide collection access to city residents unable to visit the museum due to physical distance, these exhibitions traveled to more than thirty sites in four boroughs between 1933 and 1942. They appeared at schools, libraries, settlement houses, government buildings, YMCA branches, and one museum. Numerically, the museum considered the initiative highly successful, with approximately 2 million people, just under 20% of the city’s population at the time, visiting the shows during its duration (Bach, “A Museum on the March” 252; Post).

Bach’s praise of the Met’s accomplishments is similar to that offered by administrators in the Federal Art Project (FAP) about one of their own outreach initiatives, the federal community art centers (CACs).2 Established in 1935, this program operated through local art centers connected to a national art-sharing infrastructure, with more than 80 sites active across the United States by the end of 1940 (Federal Art Project, “Development” 8). In addition to providing free art classes, the project featured an extensive roster of traveling exhibitions organized through the FAP’s Exhibition Section, with more than 500 shows of contemporary American art and other materials organized between 1936 and the program’s closure in 1942 (Baker, “Job Analysis” 1-2). Through their exhibitions and programming, the CACs purported to strengthen democracy while enriching the lives of American citizens, from encouraging participants to exercise free choice in its art classes to celebrating the country’s geographic and cultural diversity in its exhibitions. As one report concluded, “each of these 83 community art workshops is a concrete symbol of the realization that in nourishing the arts, we also nourish the essentials of a true democracy…” (Federal Art Project, “Development” 1).

The Met and the FAP made powerful assertions about the effectiveness of their outreach programs, whether by increasing a museum’s relevance within its home city or bolstering democracy. Both initiatives mobilized art, literally and figuratively, to increase public access. Museums have used traveling exhibitions since the Progressive era to counter critiques that museums privilege collections development over public service. In his influential 1917 essay, “The Gloom of the Museum,” John Cotton Dana accused American museums of uncritically emulating European collections with their emphasis on rare, luxurious objects, concluding that “As the collections were of very great value, consisting usually of originals which no money could replace…the first thought in regard to them was their preservation; their utilization being a secondary and rather remote affair” (11). Decades before Dana’s essay, curators observed that an overemphasis on developing comprehensive collections could result in tedious gallery experiences for general audiences (Schwarzer 156).

Yet, since the nineteenth century, museums have challenged their public perception as institutions focused on collections at the expense of people through initiatives designed to increase art access, including mobile outreach exhibitions (Hendren 1). Located in schools, libraries, and other public, non-gallery spaces, outreach exhibitions enable museums to demonstrate their commitment to public service through expense, logistical challenges, and potential risk to collections. While large-scale spectacles such as World’s Fairs have received significant scholarly attention in terms of interwar exhibition tactics (Shanken 1-2), outreach shows also merit consideration, both for their role in the history of exhibitions and through the significance of community involvement in codifying art canons and enacting institutional relevance. Correspondence and administrative files related to outreach exhibitions document the contributions of custodians, teachers, and other personnel to these events and reveal the relationships and tensions of museums work at the local level.

This article considers the community relationships underpinning art access by examining two interwar outreach initiatives, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions and the CACs. The former attempted to expand the Met’s presence within New York City by circulating objects from the permanent collection to different sites. The latter introduced viewers to contemporary American art with exhibitions that traveled nationally. For both initiatives, the logistical and financial challenges associated with traveling exhibitions demonstrated the willingness of both the Met and the CACs to serve their audiences by sharing original artworks. Yet neither organization operated in isolation, and the community labor needed to implement these exhibitions, both on the part of the institutions that created them and the hosting organizations that received them, indelibly shaped their appearance and content.

My approach continues recent scholarship in museum and exhibition studies, which has focused attention on the significance of networks in museum operations. Howard S. Becker’s Art Worlds, an early and significant sociological analysis of the contemporary art world, argues that in addition to artists, the labor and consumption of interconnected networks of suppliers, dealers, and consumers produce art (1-2). More recently, Catherine Nichols’s research on the dispersal of duplicate objects from the Smithsonian to small museums during the nineteenth century assesses the work that collections objects do for the various institutions they represent. She considers how shared objects enabled smaller museums to benefit from the Smithsonian’s cache while dispersing its research and cataloging systems nationally, further cementing its status as a preeminent research institution (Nichols 32-36). Caroline M. Riley’s discussion of the significance of relationships between museum staff, collectors, and government representatives in shaping art historical narratives is also critical to this discussion (112, 150).

I build upon these analyses by considering the significance of community members at the hosting sites for outreach exhibitions in shaping the appearance and content of these installations. Outreach shows are shared efforts between the museums that stage them and the institutions that host them. The contributions of both parties should be analyzed on institutional and individual levels because, first, the contributions of individual laborers to exhibition design warrant recognition, and second, outreach exhibitions offer a means to assess how museums approach community collaboration. A persistent belief in the power of original works of art to transform lives informs art museums’ approach to outreach exhibitions—a belief that schools, libraries, and other hosting sites may or may not share. Successfully cultivating collections-based relationships between museums and community institutions begins with understanding how all stakeholders in outreach exhibitions approach these shows and whether they achieve their expectations.

Outreach exhibitions also highlight tensions concerning the value and preservation of art objects that shape perceptions of appropriate art for different audiences (Riley 150). These exhibitions have distinct practical challenges that demonstrate the role of logistics in the shaping of art canons, with concerns over the difficulty of transport or object vulnerability in non-museum spaces influencing the selection of artworks. While programs like the Met’s Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions often targeted public schools and related sites to engage new audiences, skepticism about object safety in these locations and, implicitly, their new audiences, influenced checklists, with museum staff limiting or eliminating fragile media such as glass in favor of more durable materials such small stone carvings or textile samples (Winlock, 25 Jan. 1938). While made for conservation purposes, such decisions potentially reinforced class boundaries surrounding art objects, with the most precious materials confined to the museum itself. Outreach exhibitions could limit their checklists to less costly works historically associated with working-class producers, as when one of the Met’s textile shows featured nineteenth-century factory-produced samples. Yet these shows also challenged perceptions of what was considered safe beyond the gallery, with many installations featuring elaborate costumes, full suits of armor, and other costly materials. Additionally, this article aims to challenge the passivity of exhibit audiences by demonstrating the influence of community members, particularly working-class individuals, in the curation process. Their participation was by no means equal to that of museum staff, but in offering suggestions for exhibit locations, as well as providing interpretation in the form of tours and talks, workers and volunteers at outreach exhibition sites contributed to the curation process. Considering ongoing calls for museums to embrace inclusivity through collaboration, studying these precedents can provide context for current outreach efforts by assessing how museums have historically attempted to foster community relationships, with the objective of improving such interactions in the future.

Part One: Overview of Art Outreach Exhibitions

Although varying in format and scope, outreach exhibitions as a genre share a similar mission. They are intended for spaces outside of conventional museums or galleries. The museums and related organizations that curate these shows target visitors they define as lacking access to cultural resources, whether these are rural communities or, in the case of cities, neighborhoods considered distant from the main museum building. The scale of outreach exhibitions ranges from a single case of objects intended for one wall to shows occupying entire galleries or multiple rooms. They can appear in a variety of non-gallery spaces, but organizing institutions frequently choose educational sites such as schools or libraries to emphasize their didactic focus. Outreach exhibitions also take the form of mobile galleries housed in trucks or trailers. Colloquially known as artmobiles, these galleries-on-wheels can travel to different locations without disassembling and packing objects for transit or requiring appropriate installation spaces.

Whether they appear on a truck or in a school, impermanence characterizes the educational and spatial experiences available through outreach exhibitions. While ephemerality distinguishes exhibitions in general, the temporary quality of outreach exhibitions affects their physical space as well as content. While the spaces and contents of museums can and do regularly change, outreach exhibitions do not appear in conventional museum buildings. As such, the installation has the distinct task of transforming the space it occupies into a gallery to provide access to original artworks or artifacts. To paraphrase art historian Mary Coffey, staging outreach exhibitions enacts a museumification process, with both the objects and their accompanying displays extending the authority and aura of the museum gallery into the space (Coffey 17–20; Duncan 1–2). Unlike museums in repurposed homes, factories, and other buildings, which retain the indexical marks of their original function but have been permanently redesignated as gallery spaces, outreach exhibitions temporarily museumify a space, which then reverts to its original function after the exhibition ("History"). Impermanence is also a key feature of artmobiles. Whereas the vehicle itself contains a permanent gallery, it remains a temporary fixture in the sites it visits, disappearing as soon as the truck departs for its next destination. Whether they occupy a school classroom or a mobile gallery truck, outreach exhibitions are hybridized gallery spaces, a meeting point between the organizing museum and the hosting community. As such, we should ask not only how outreach exhibitions temporarily transform the spaces they occupy in appearance and function but also how these spaces potentially influence their content, presentation, and audience response.

The access and impermanence associated with outreach exhibitions inform their operations. Like other kinds of traveling exhibitions, outreach shows can be cumbersome to transport and expensive to maintain, but they also pose unique logistical challenges. Exhibits housed in libraries or schools occupy buildings that do not necessarily follow the same safety or climate protocols as museums, and the ability or willingness to adhere to these standards helps determine potential host sites. Artmobiles may accommodate best practices as dictated by museums but they present other challenges as mobile spaces, including vehicle vibrations and parking requirements ("VMFA on the Road"). Given their focus on access and education, outreach exhibitions usually encourage free admission and minimal, if any, collateral merchandising. Indeed, the logistical and financial challenges associated with outreach exhibitions are vital to their perception as a public service. They rebut accusations that museums prioritize collections growth and management over audience needs by investing resources and risking art objects in the name of engaging audiences (Driver et al. 2).

Museums have circulated their objects through outreach exhibitions and related installations for over a century. During the 1860s, the East India Company Museum, later absorbed by the Victoria & Albert Museum, circulated albums of textiles to schools and other educational institutions (Driver and Ashmore 353–54). During the 1880s, Buenos Aires hosted traveling museums that featured natural history collections and anatomical specimens (Podgorny 127). In the United States, museum-organized outreach exhibits intended for the public started appearing at the turn of the twentieth century. Natural history museums circulated objects first, with art museums like the Met following suit a few years later (Clough).

These exhibits developed as part of broader educational reforms that distinguished museums, schools, and other social institutions during the Progressive Era. Already critiqued by John Cotton Dana and other reformers as disconnected from society at large (11), art museums started implementing more aggressive educational efforts, including extended hours to accommodate working-class audiences, docent-led tours and programs, and the establishment of children’s galleries (Trask 21). While most of these reforms occurred within galleries, museums also ventured into collections outreach by circulating photographs, lantern slides, and halftone prints.3 By the 1910s, some art museums had begun exhibiting original objects in schools, libraries, and other spaces outside their immediate gallery walls (de Forest 190).

Outreach shows have received less scholarly attention than other types of exhibitions, arguably because they emphasize education and access rather than innovative object selections or installations. Compared to the large-scale commercial spectacles of the World’s Fairs, or MoMA’s provocative reframing of industrial design in its 1934 exhibition Machine Art (Marshall 7), interwar outreach exhibitions appear modest in scale and content, affirming rather than expanding established art canons. Yet they warrant critical study because they offer a striking distillation of the ongoing debate between preservation and access as a museum’s primary function (Schwarzer 156). Additionally, considering the interplay of expectations between museums and their collaborating institutions offers new perspectives on the role of mobile collections in establishing relationships with community organizations and the power dynamics that emerge as these collaborators pursue their respective goals.

Part Two: The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions

Founded in 1933, the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions Program continued the collections-based outreach that the Met had begun implementing in the 1910s. Yet it also reflected contemporary anxieties about the curtailment of funding opportunities due to the Great Depression and declining visitor attendance. Annual visitation at the Met dropped from 1.3 million to less than 900,000 by the end of the 1930s (Berkeley 9-10; Moske 14; Rea et al. 173–74). The Met initially focused its efforts on lower Manhattan, sending three different exhibitions to University Settlement, Hudson Guild, and the George Bruce Branch Library (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1935). Met museum staff managed the program from the selection of objects to the creation of labels and interpretive materials, on-site installation, and transportation via truck to different sites, although it is unclear whether they transported the works themselves or hired contractors (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Circular for Public High Schools; Bach, 13 Mar. 1935). The Met created new shows and visited more locations, developing a seasonal schedule running from September through May (Bach, 19 Apr. 1935; Bach, “Neighborhood” 148–49). Staffing needs increased as the program expanded, and the Met relied on WPA-funded guards and gallery instructors to cover security and educational services such as gallery talks (Bach, 19 Aug. 1937). Despite the ongoing demand for exhibitions from schools and other sites, the Met ended the initiative after the termination of the WPA in 1942, stating that it could not operate the program without federal assistance (Taylor 164–65).

By 1936, the Met had seven exhibitions circulating New York: Ancient Egypt: Its Life and Art; Arms and Armor; European Textiles and Costume Figures; The Art of the Far East (also called Art of China); Oriental Textiles; The Art of the Near East; and Ancient Greece and Rome (Post). Together, these exhibitions offered an Old-World view of art history, with examples coming from Europe, Asia, and North Africa. The Americas were not represented, although Bach considered the possibility of an American show similar to the Met’s period rooms throughout the program’s duration ("Neighborhood").4 The exhibitions generally favored smaller pieces such as textile samples, architectural fragments, and carved objects like Egyptian scarabs, although full suits of armor and robes displayed on mannequins did appear (Post). Archival documents suggest that the Met most frequently delivered textile-based shows, with European Textiles and Costume Figures appearing at least sixteen times between 1935 and 1941. Comparatively, the Met displayed its exhibit of arms and armor ten times during the same years, with most showings happening in 1935 and 1939. The sites for the Circulating Exhibitions also changed. Whereas the Met initially focused on settlement houses, in 1935 it began staging exhibitions at high schools, which would become the shows’ most frequent sites (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summary of Collections).

As mobilized collection initiatives, the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions required considerable labor from museum staff, which Bach vividly described in “A Museum on the March,” explaining that
It may not be easy to visualize the expense in the course of five years: of making 50 installations in 27 locations in four boroughs; of repeatedly packing, insuring, transporting, and installing some 1,500 objects; the labor of carpenters, casemakers, painters, upholsterers, electricians, and printers; the endless executive detail in the offices of the Director, Secretary, Treasurer, Registrar, and Superintendent of the Museum, as well as in the department which directly administers these Neighborhood Exhibitions. (Bach, “A Museum on the March” 252)
The article offered a comprehensive list of the preparatory tasks needed to generate these shows, concluding that while staging the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions Program was a complex endeavor requiring a variety of specialized labor, the Met remains committed to working for the public good. Bach emphasized the museum’s work as a gift to implicitly underserved others, making it seem that the exhibits were largely one-way transactions.

Yet the museum’s laborers, whether on-staff or hired contractors, were not the only people who labored to bring these collections to an audience. While the Met did curate the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, school administrators, custodians, librarians, and other workers also contributed to them. By identifying appropriate sites, scheduling installations, and maintaining exhibition spaces, these workers helped shape the appearance and interpretation of these shows. The significance of community input and non-museum labor is especially vivid in a 1935 letter exchange between H.E. Winlock, Director of the Met from 1932 to 1939, and William J. McAuliffe, Assistant Director of Extension Activities for the New York Board of Education. The exchange concerned the payment of a five-dollar fee to DeWitt Clinton High School, one of the exhibition sites. Winlock complained to McAuliffe about the fee, observing that the Museum had already covered the exhibition’s transportation costs and the labor required for both installation and on-site security, writing that “The sum involved in this new charge is a small one, but is, nevertheless, annoying since it would appear that we are paying rent or some other fee to the School System” (Winlock, 6 Mar. 1935). McAuliffe clarified in his response that the fee covered the labor of the high school’s custodian, Mr. Albie, who cleaned the exhibit space. He explained that the fee originated from the Met’s request for Sunday openings, stating that “He [Albie] must clean the building after your use. He must be on duty for himself and in addition must have a fireman for whose services he must pay at overtime rates on Sunday” (McAuliffe). In its efforts to provide what it deemed a public service, the Met had inadvertently exploited Mr. Albie’s labor and wages, since, in addition to working without pay on Sundays, he had been paying the fireman out of pocket.

The exchange between Winlock and McAuliffe nuances the Met’s assessment of its program by highlighting the significance of exhibition sites and the people who worked at them in the implementation of outreach shows. It demonstrates, at a granular level, the burdens and complexities introduced through mobility and experienced by these locations and their staff. In other words, it is highly unlikely the Met would have left Sunday custodial fees unaccounted for had the exhibition taken place in its own galleries. While Bach’s “A Museum on the March” rightly highlighted the labor of museum staff beyond its curatorial personnel, he focused on the generative side of exhibition work, such as furniture making, lighting, and other specialized labor that enables the completion of installations. The maintenance that follows the opening, however, was also important in providing access to the Met’s collection and in maintaining its image as a respectable institution. The curatorial staff set up the exhibition, but custodians such as Mr. Albie assured its appearance for patrons, and this labor mandated additional hours. Subsequent archival documents further highlight the ongoing significance of custodial staff as the Met formalized its interactions with schools and other exhibition sites. These procedural changes reflected the museum’s efforts to keep up with demand by streamlining procedures while attempting to avoid the oversights of its early miscommunications (Winlock, 28 Oct. 1938). A memorandum from 1936 suggests how custodians potentially influenced the layout of exhibitions through their familiarity with school spaces. The document states that while school principals decide where to assign an exhibit, they should consult with custodians to identify appropriate spaces. Additionally, if those custodians raise concerns over traffic flow or other regulations, the principal needs to get approval from the district office of department buildings before hosting the exhibition (Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Memorandum"). A 1938 circular distributed to teachers reiterates the role of school staff in site selection, noting that exhibition spaces would only be assigned after consultation with both principals and custodian engineers (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Circular for Public High Schools). Museum staff may have claimed authority over the show’s content, but the Met deferred to local expertise to implement the exhibit under new spatial conditions.

The role of on-site custodial labor in the implementation of the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions merits recognition because it highlights the shows as hybridized spaces. At the Met itself, custodians such as Mr. Albie would have no input in exhibition curation because staff hierarchies within museums generally prohibit custodial or maintenance workers from contributing to curation beyond cleaning exhibition spaces. Within the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, however, custodians could offer input on identifying appropriate spaces, in addition to daily cleaning and maintenance. Their influence was indirect, but in suggesting appropriate spaces for exhibitions, custodians and other working-class laborers could participate in the curation of Met exhibitions.

The significance of on-site community members to the implementation of Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions also extended to the show’s intellectual content. Although the Met curated the shows by compiling checklists, installing objects, and providing interpretive texts, teachers could shape how viewers interpreted them. In addition to the Met assigning WPA instructors, teachers working at host schools provided talks for their classes. Extant correspondence suggests they offered their own interpretations of the contents on view. In a letter to Winlock, Edward Zabriskie, principal at Washington Irving High School, listed all the instructors who had given talks about two exhibitions, Ancient Egypt: Its Life and Art and Ancient Greece and Rome, hosted there in 1936 and 1937 respectively. He noted talks contributed by five teachers: paintings and prints from Mrs. Fansler, ancient writings from Mr. Tagert, Japanese prints from Miss Duncan, and gallery talks and tours from Miss Bradish and Mrs. Freeman. In addition, he mentioned unnamed teachers giving talks on different subjects and styles, including Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and Japanese (Zabriskie).

This correspondence proves that at least some of the teachers who visited these shows connected them to larger art historical narratives. Extant brochures from the Met archive show that the museum’s interpretive materials provided historical context for the objects on view, but focused on the culture or geographic region represented in the show, discussing its economic, stylistic, and cultural traits (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ancient Egypt). By contrast, the teachers leading talks and lectures at Washington Irving High School seemingly regarded the shows as chapters within a longer discussion of art history. Talks focusing on Byzantine or Romanesque art and architecture suggest that teachers connected the exhibitions to different styles and geographic regions across time, contextualizing them within broader discussions of stylistic change. Considering that some of the schools the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions visited, such as the Textile High School, focused their curricula on specific vocations or trades, it is likely that teachers across New York  schools interpreted the art objects in relation to their respective disciplines, with the objects on view contextualized in different ways.

School staff also influenced the exhibitions’ documentary records. Throughout the program’s run, the Met sent photographers to document the exhibitions. On the practical level of availability, schools affected the labor of photographers through their schedules, with teachers and administrators requesting that they come at specific times or avoid other ones. Yet they also influenced the content of the resulting photographs. In the most prominent example, Laura C. Ferris, Chairman of the Art Department at Washington Irving High School, requested that the photographic documentation for Oriental Textiles be rescheduled from a Saturday, when the building would have been unoccupied, to a weekday when students would be actively studying and sketching the exhibition (Ferris). Whereas the Met intended to document the exhibition’s objects and placement, Ferris wanted to highlight how students interacted with it. The images that resulted from this conversation provide insight into how students used the shows as learning experiences beyond attending them, while expanding the archival record from simply documenting objects to demonstrating their positive impact on the lives of visitors.5

From its initial conception to its final execution, the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions project represented the convergence of multiple kinds of labor both within the museum and at the community sites they visited. Custodians, teachers, and other on-site staff and volunteers shaped both the appearance and content of exhibitions through the sites they recommended, the maintenance work they carried out, and the information they chose to share through tours, talks, and documentary photographs. While presented in museum bulletins and other public-facing documents as an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, evidence from correspondence and memoranda indicate that the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions are more accurately considered hybrid efforts requiring the cooperation of museum and non-museum personnel and labor.

Part Three: The CACs

Two years after the Met initiated the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, the U.S. government launched the federal community art center initiative (CACs). Supervised by the Federal Art Project (FAP), the CACs endeavored to provide national art access through free exhibitions, classes, and other programs. The FAP developed art centers in collaboration with local sponsors with the understanding that these groups would eventually assume the centers’ logistical and financial operation (Grieve 141-143). The schedule for each center included locally organized installations and shows arranged through the Exhibition Section in Washington, DC. At the program’s height, approximately 100 centers operated in more than 20 states. They occupied sites ranging from new museum buildings to renovated houses and shops, as seen in the image below. While many sites closed permanently during World War II, a few remain active today, including the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, the Roswell Museum in New Mexico, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. As with many FAP endeavors, federal administrators presented CACs through narratives of uplift and paternalism, enlightening what program employees perceived as local populations ignorant about art (Federal Art Project, “Development” 1). Problematic assumptions aside, their geographic breadth as a pre-Internet art education initiative remains striking: viewers in 1930s southeastern New Mexico and other rural regions gained free access to original, contemporary works produced in metropolitan areas such as New York, and vice-versa.

Influenced by intellectuals and reformers such as John Dewey and John Cotton Dana, FAP personnel envisioned community art centers as venues dedicated to temporary exhibitions and free classes for children and adults (Grieve 141; Federal Art Project, Federal Sponsored 2-5). The CACs also encouraged individual art centers to organize exhibitions of local art, serve as meeting sites for social groups, and offer workshops in regional crafts (Parker 9). Through this multivalent programming, the CACs intended to strengthen democratic ideals by cultivating art appreciation. In encouraging participants to exercise choice through creating their own artworks, exposing them to a variety of art in its exhibitions, or hosting club meetings and debates, the CACs used art appreciation as a means for audiences to train their democratic muscles (Federal Art Project, Federal Sponsored 1–2).

As installations, art center exhibitions relied on federal and local participation. Between 1935 and the WPA’s dissolution during World War Two, Mildred Holzhauer, director of the FAP’s Exhibition Section, curated more than 500 traveling shows for community art centers, choosing works from FAP projects as well as materials from the Library of Congress, university repositories, and private collections (Baker, “Job Analysis” 1). Born in New York, Holzhauer studied at the University of Rochester and began her art administration career with the Van Diemen Galleries and the College Art Association. In 1934, curator and administrator Holger Cahill hired her to assist with the organization of two exhibitions for the Rockefeller Center, Salons of America and the First Municipal Art Exhibition. When President Roosevelt appointed Cahill as national Director of the Federal Art Project in 1935, Cahill hired Holzhauer as his assistant (Baker, “Oral History Interview” 21 September 1963, 1-2).

Exhibition Section shows addressed a variety of subjects, but works produced through the FAP remained a primary focus, both due to the federal affiliations of CACs and to promote contemporary American artists, who remained underrepresented in American galleries and museums (Trask 123–24). Stylistic representation in the Exhibition Section shows ranged from Social Realism to Surrealism, and shows included artists from different geographic regions across the United States to demonstrate the diversity of America’s populations while highlighting shared values like beauty or creativity (Baker, “Oral History Interview” 22 July 1965, 6).

The Exhibition Section shows reflected federal and local involvement in their content, appearance, and interpretation. On the federal level, Holzhauer coordinated exhibitions for art centers based on criteria she established in consultation with the FAP, including gallery size and the perceived political or cultural inclinations of local communities. Whenever possible, she conducted on-site visits to determine each art center’s facilities and gauge resident interests, including preferences in subject matter or medium and tolerance for avant-garde styles (Baker, “Oral History Interview” 22 July 1965, 5). Exhibition sizes varied according to available facilities, with the smallest shows featuring 20 to 30 objects, and the largest, such as the FAP display at the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition, including more than 700 pieces (Baker, “Job Analysis,” 1). Shows appeared in a variety of spaces, from smaller galleries in renovated homes or businesses, such as the Curry County Art Center in Oregon, to sites like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which occupied spaces originally constructed as museums. Although the FAP renovated all its art center spaces to appear as modern galleries, Holzhauer curated shows knowing that the exhibitions could appear different in each location. Her staff at the Exhibition Section included an assistant director who oversaw the packing and shipping of shows, two carpenters, one framer, a junior clerk, an assistant clerk who specialized in stenography, and a clerk typist. The Exhibition Section constructed frames in its Washington, DC workshop, and included press releases, text panels, and other interpretive materials in its shows (Baker, “Job Analysis,” 1-2; Baker, “Oral History Interview” 22 July 1965, 7).

Art center exhibitions reflected local involvement through their installation and interpretation, beginning—like the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions—with their workers. Positions included center directors who reported to the FAP director assigned to their state or region, gallery attendants responsible for exhibition layouts and gallery talks, librarians, art teachers, and custodians capable of carpentry when possible (Federal Art Project, Federal Sponsored 10–11). Some centers featured all of these positions; others featured fewer personnel. Staff capabilities at each of the art centers varied. While not all art center staffs included trained artists, curators, or other art professionals, local staff of all levels of experience and expertise exercised agency through the show’s layout. The Exhibition Section provided the show’s contents, but gallery attendants determined the actual layout, exercising curatorial choice based on their expert knowledge of an art center’s spatial qualities (Baker, “Oral History Interview” 22 July 1965, 3). Art centers also supplemented FAP materials with their own signage, with some sites hiring local artists to create them (Dickey, 25 Nov. 1938). The Walker Art Center, one of the largest sites associated with the CAC initiative, experimented with exhibition design by using bright primary colors on walls or arranging exhibit titles and other texts into diagonals, circles, and other shapes (Walker Art Center 2).

Beyond the logistics of sharing traveling exhibitions, individual art centers contended with their own operational challenges. To take one example, consider the Roswell Museum in southeast New Mexico, which retains an extensive archival record of its WPA activities. Opened in 1937 in partnership with the FAP and the Chaves County Archaeological and Historical Society (A&H Society), now known as the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, the site was initially established as a history museum, with its building designed as a gallery and collections space in a Spanish Colonial Revival style. It remains active as a municipal, collections-based institution highlighting the art and history of the American Southwest. The Roswell Museum’s staff averaged between four to six people during its WPA affiliation and included a mixture of residents and FAP personnel on loan from regions as distant as New York (Dickey, 25 Oct. 1939).

The Roswell Museum’s personnel reflected the city’s complex race relations, with white and Hispano workers influencing the museum’s operations and reputation as a cultural institution in significant ways. The city’s demographics were roughly divided between white and Hispano populations, but most of the museum’s workers were white, with white employees occupying administrative roles such as director. Yet a significant Hispano presence did exist at the museum. Arguably one of the museum’s most influential workers was Domingo Tejada, a carpenter employed at various WPA sites throughout New Mexico during the 1930s. Active in Roswell from 1937 to 1938, Tejada supervised both the museum’s carpentry shop and the Roswell branch of the National Youth Administration (Nunn 93–94). Tejada and his carpentry workers researched, designed, and constructed the museum’s wooden furniture, including chairs, benches, and desks intended for museum staff and visitors (Hunter, 3 Nov. 1937; Nunn 93). His labor as a researcher and carpenter was critical to the Roswell Museum’s Spanish Colonial appearance and the reputation it subsequently developed as a site dedicated to preserving historical crafts and traditions. When national FAP administrators such as Assistant Director Thomas Parker praised Roswell’s historically-informed, regional aesthetic in speeches and other documents (11), they elevated the work of a laborer who was not, in an ordinary way, expected to produce art. Now classified as collections objects, Tejada’s furniture continues to shape the museum’s reputation as a significant example of WPA design.

While Tejada shaped the museum’s permanent furnishings, and the director and gallery attendant influenced the appearance of the Roswell Museum’s rotating exhibitions, the museum’s sponsors at the A&H Society played a significant role in its programming and public perception as a site interested in history. The exact details surrounding the Roswell Museum’s origins are not entirely clear; however, a retrospective essay from one of its sponsors, Maurice Fulton, claims that the A&H Society wanted to develop a history museum and joined the CAC initiative to cover its operational expenses (Fulton 81–83). Throughout the Roswell Museum’s WPA affiliation, the A&H Society focused on its historical collections, causing friction with FAP administrators (Horgan; Defenbacher 1). Museum directors expressed frustration at the organization’s seeming lack of interest in FAP programming, and criticized what they considered an unwillingness to rotate permanent collections (Dickey, 30 Dec. 1938).

Yet FAP correspondence suggests that the Museum’s sponsors did not oppose traveling exhibitions; rather their motives differed from the FAP when it came to circulating objects. In a series of letters dating from 1938, Robert Sprague, the museum’s first director, explains to State FAP Director Russell Vernon Hunter that the museum’s sponsors had solicited the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe for exhibits of historical material, intending to display them at the Roswell site. Hunter issued an ultimatum to either stop soliciting Santa Fe or end the museum’s FAP affiliation (Hunter, 19 Feb. 1938). While the A&H Society agreed to end its correspondence with Santa Fe, their requests for exhibitions indicates their interest in developing institutional networks centering New Mexico history. While FAP administrators believed that the museum should focus either on contemporary American art or New Mexico history, the Roswell sponsors did not consider these interests mutually exclusive.

Eventually, the Museum reconciled both interests. In 1942, Roswell officially ended its WPA affiliation. Sometime later, the Museum separated from the A&H Society. Free of the conflicts and disagreements of both institutions, the Museum  synthesized their objectives, developing a regional collection focused on southwest art and history while offering art classes and other educational programs ("Mission & History").

From the high desert of southeast New Mexico to the shores of the Pacific Northwest, CACs represented a convergence of community labor and participation through its art and the work required to maintain its operations. While Mildred Holzhauer and her department curated exhibitions in Washington, DC, local staff and volunteers ranging from professionally trained artists to curious novices shaped their appearance and interpretation. Examining detailed records from these institutions illustrates how government goals intersected with local priorities, as cooperating organizations pursue allied but not perfectly meshed missions. 


As interwar art-sharing initiatives, the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions andCACs had different objectives: the Met featured its European and Ancient World collections, while CACs concentrated on contemporary American art produced through the FAP. The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions targeted urban locations; CACs occupied cities but also often targeted nonurban, rural communities. The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions appeared in schools, libraries, and other extant community sites that already had an audience; CACs operated independently of other organizations, though they encouraged community relationships by hosting club meetings. The Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions emphasized their educational focus by avoiding department stores and other commercial sites (Winlock, 2 Apr. 1936). The educational programs of CACs aimed to develop new art consumers, with many centers occupying renovated sites originally intended for domestic or commercial purposes. At its core, the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions Program was a museum project designed to extend the Met’s presence beyond its immediate gallery walls. CACs presented themselves as nimble exhibition and education-based alternatives to museums, centering contemporary American art as a product of a vibrant young democracy. 

Despite these important differences, as outreach projects both initiatives confronted external labor and service networks that limited their ability to deliver programs in exact accordance to the organization’s desire. In the case of the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions, the Met created and installed the shows, but staff at hosting sites determined appropriate exhibition spaces, scheduled installations, and managed maintenance. CACs negotiated federal and local interests while relying on a workforce with varying experiences and skill sets. For both programs, community input shaped their appearance and content through choices made in artwork selection as well as through the maintenance of exhibit spaces.

The inclusion of original objects in the Met’s exhibitions and CAC programming does not mean that they excluded less expensive outreach methods (Federal Art Project, Exhibition #281 1). On the contrary, they and other institutions circulated reproductions such as slides and photographs. Yet the persistence of outreach exhibitions suggests an ongoing belief in the power of original works of art to transform their viewers’ lives. I suggest that this belief makes programs such as federal CACs and the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions more than historical curiosities.

Studying outreach exhibitions such as these two initiatives is important to understanding how museums and related cultural organizations attempt to engage audiences. Artmobiles and traveling exhibitions remain popular outreach methods among museums, with a couple of contemporary examples including the Artmobile program offered by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the North Dakota Museum of Art’s Rural Arts Initiative, among others ("VMFA on the Road"; "Rural Arts"). Exploring why cultural organizations use outreach exhibitions, a didactic medium more than a century old, can help us better understand how and why they engage their communities.

Understanding how museums have historically engaged communities through outreach exhibitions and other programs can also provide context for ongoing challenges in museum reform. Porchia Moore, Nina Simon, and other museums workers, scholars, and activists have called for the democratization of curatorial practices. They argue for asset-based rather than need-based outreach, urging museums to regard the communities they serve as collaborators with their own resources and specialties rather than passive audiences requiring the museum’s expertise (Moore et al. 11; Simon 92; Murawski 25). Examining how museums have historically attempted to engage communities can expose long standing, unspoken rules about art appreciation while also demonstrating that such engagement efforts have always relied on the knowledge and expertise of the communities they visit. Interwar initiatives such as the CACs or the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions offer more than historical examples of art access and education. Rather, they provide context for current engagement efforts while inviting us to consider how sharing collections enables community members to participate in the curation process more actively. Just as importantly, they urge us to ask whether this interaction benefits the communities that outreach exhibitions attempt to engage.


1. This article developed from a conference paper I gave at the 2022 Space Between Annual Conference and draws from chapters of my dissertation. I would like to thank Jennifer Nesbitt for encouraging me to expand this talk and for her astute editing. I am also grateful to the two anonymous readers for their recommendations.

2. When discussing community art centers in general, or the federal initiative as a whole, I refer to them in the lowercase or use the acronym CAC(s). When addressing specific sites, I refer to them by their official name. To my knowledge, FAP administrators never used the CAC acronym to describe this initiative. Rather, I follow Mary Ann Calo’s usage of this acronym in African American Artists and the New Deal Art Projects: Opportunity, Access, and Community (Pennsylvania State UP, 2023), as I believe it encapsulates both the national and decentralized qualities of this initiative.

3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin includes several brief articles and announcements discussing resources available to teachers and schools. Some examples include the following: “Help Offered by the Museum to Teachers in High Schools” (1907), “What You May Borrow from the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (1919), and “What the Museum is Doing for the Public Schools” (1908).

4. By period room, I refer to museum galleries or historical houses that have been curated to resemble the living spaces of a specific time and geographic region using art, furniture, and interior design.

5. Documentation for the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions does include other photographs showing students attending shows. I do not know whether these images resulted from similar exchanges between school and museum staff.

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