When Art Hits Close to Home
When our new Our Town grantees are announced later this week, we’ll be taking another step toward making the arts a central component of communities across the nation. But back in the 1930s, the Associated American Artists took this idea of artistic access a step further, and sought to bring the arts not just into every community, but into every home. Creative placemaking, meet creative homemaking.
This innovative program is the subject of Art in Every Home: Associated American Artists (AAA) Prints, showing now through July 21 at Michigan’s Flint Institute of Arts (FIA). Founded in 1934 by Reeves Lewenthal, the New York-based AAA commissioned limited-edition, signed lithographs from well-known artists such as Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and Peggy Bacon, which were then sold for five dollars each at department stores and through mail-order catalogues (frames would cost you an additional two bucks). The show features many of the 40 AAA prints that the FIA has in its permanent collection.
Although Lewenthal was primarily a businessman who recognized a good idea when he saw one, the AAA’s impact went far beyond simple profit. During the organization’s early years, the country was still reeling from the Great Depression, and would soon become involved in World War II. In modern times, we have seen the arts suffer within a similar climate. But because of the AAA’s affordability, “people that didn't have a lot of income could start collecting really fine works of art,” said Tracee Glab, curator of collections and exhibitions at the FIA. Rather than a luxury for the wealthy, this was art for the people.
The organization’s emphasis on regionalism, landscapes, and decidedly American imagery like fishing and farm life made the artwork all the more appealing. “[The prints featured] themes and people that you could recognize,” said Glab. “They were your neighbors, or that was your hometown ice-skating rink. Those were recognizable images, and in the post-Depression, post-war period, people longed for not just nostalgia, but also comfort as a way to deal with the anxieties of life.”
Of course, customers weren’t the only ones who benefitted from the AAA. Artists were paid $200 per edition, which was nothing to sneeze at back then. Along with New Deal programs such as the Federal Art Project and Works Progress Administration, the AAA “helped people make a living being an artist, or at least to practice their art and see some income and public recognition.” At a time when many people still believed in the superiority of European art, these programs also “opened people’s eyes to the art next door, the art that was right in your own backyard,” said Glab. “I think it woke people up to this idea of an American art movement.”
The AAA eventually expanded to more commercially driven products like housewares, textiles, and flatware before folding in 1981. But the organization’s original “art in every home” mission remains as relevant as ever. “[Art] is part of what makes life worth living,” said Glab. “To be able to see something every day, whether it's at your dinner table or when you wake up in the morning, [that speaks to you] is a beautiful thing.”