This week, my family art history research project led me to the basement of the Monterey Museum of Art, in Monterey, California, where a large mural painted by my great aunt Moira Wallace has been hiding in storage for decades.
Moira’s mural was among a collection of WPA-era art commissioned for Monterey High School in the 1930s and later moved to the cellar where they lived out their life in obscurity until 2003. My mom kept an early sketch of the mural in our family, though I’m not sure anyone ever knew it had a full-sized twin.
This morning, after months of art sleuthing, I reunited the sketch with the finished piece.
There’s a twist to the story
In 2003, a Federal Government agency called the GSA began a multiyear initiative to round up all the languishing New Deal-era art it paid for during the 1930s and 40s under programs. Once found, the items are shipped off to a warehouse in Washington, D.C. to await conservation.
But Moira’s painting was left behind by the Feds during the Monterey sweep. According to the museum records, the GSA couldn’t find any receipts for Moira’s mural so they left without it.
New Deal? No Deal. The fact that there were no government receipts implies that Moira didn’t get paid for her work. I can’t help but think the snub was due to the subject matter: a Spanish Mission (or Mexican village) scene depicting life in Monterey before the white men moved in. Just imagine if these were the images our government funded in the 1930s where our society might be today.
This note below, dated 1986, appears to detail the date when the mural was discovered:
1986 April – WPA Work @ M. High School: Festival Scene: (women) Dancing, guitar-playing, grinding corn meal, hen and chickens, l.l. corner, dog. horse + children in yard – N.D. Approx 5-1/2 x 13 1/2 In frame – Scenic Basement
The Monterey Museum of Art keeps a library of archival documents from Carmel and Monterey area artists during the 20th century, named for Betty Hoag McGlynn, who created it with her envelopes and boxes full of hand-written notes. It’s notable that even Betty thought this was a WPA commissioned work.
The joy of this find was slightly muted by the sad reality of the situation: It’s very likely this mural will never again see the light of day without a very wealthy patron to save it (and sadly I never attained that station in life). It would cost as much as $25,000 to conserve the painting to put it on public display. And even that comes with a high risk of something going wrong durning the conservation process — who pays for that?
For now I’ll just appreciate the fact that it’s safe and sound.