Exhibition of the Month: Index of American Design

As promised in last month’s post, today we’re looking at the CACP’s exhibitions dedicated to the Index of American Design. If you noticed that I don’t have numbers assigned to this show, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about them. There are just so many of these exhibitions that I decided not to bother with numbers.

Plates from the Index of American Design, shown alongside local antiques at the Roswell Museum Federal Art Center, 1938. Photograph source: FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

And yes, I know I’ve already defended, but I wrote a year’s worth of these posts when I came up with the initial idea of this feature. So you’re getting all of twelve of them.

Historical Background

The Index of American Design was one of the FAP’s many ambitious documentary projects. Its mission was to document historical American design. To do this, it hired artists to create meticulous watercolor renderings of textiles, furniture, toys, and other vernacular objects. The FAP planned to circulate portfolio copies to schools, libraries, and businesses so that people could study the objects for design inspiration. Through this study, the FAP hoped to elevate American design and promote a national visual culture. Between 1935 and the end of the WPA in 1942, artists produced over 18,000 meticulous illustrations. Today these live at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Having impressive production numbers doesn’t mean the Index lacks problematic qualities, however. While the Index claimed to offer a comprehensive overview of American visual culture, in actuality it was highly selective. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it favored objects from European immigrant cultures. Holger Cahill, Director of the FAP, argued that the Index didn’t include Indigenous objects because ethnographic projects were already documenting them. The distinction between ethnographic objects and fine art, though, is illuminating. In other words, American works originating from a European tradition were more likely to be regarded as art, whereas works coming from Indigenous cultures were labeled as artifacts.

The Exhibition Section created several shows dedicated to the Index of American Design. The Roswell Museum alone hosted three different Index shows between 1938 and 1941. I’ve also encountered references to additional exhibitions in other archival repositories. In addition to art centers, the Index shows also appeared at museums, libraries, schools, and even department stores. Since the goal was to circulate the works as widely as possible, Index shows appeared as both commercial and civic sites.

What’s in the Index of American Design Exhibitions?

The Index of American Design shows included the actual watercolor renderings done by artists. Shows varied in their selections. Some appear to have shown an eclectic variety of works from different geographic locations. Others focused on a specific medium or regional culture. The sizes of exhibitions could vary.

Delores Haupt, Suspender, 1930s, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paper, 50.5 x 40.5 cm (19 7/8 x 15 15/16 in). National Gallery of Art, Index of American Design. Thousands of meticulous renderings like these comprise the Index.

In addition to hosting the actual Index plates, some art center directors encouraged local residents to bring their own antiques to display alongside the two-dimensional renderings. The inclusion of local antiques served two goals. First, it helped personalize the exhibitions by encouraging local residents to share their own works within the art center gallery. Second, it enabled directors to identify potential works to include in subsequent Index plates.

This tactic happened at least once, when the Roswell Museum exhibited an Index show in 1938. The art center invited local residents to exhibit their antiques alongside the plates. At least some of those objects were identified for inclusion in the Index.

My Thoughts on the Index

Like a lot of people interested in the Index, I have complicated feelings about the portfolio. On the one hand, the watercolor renderings are gorgeous. Meticulously rendered with exquisite detail, they can be spellbinding to view. They really speak to the skills of the artists who rendered them. But there’s also a certain eeriness to them too that I find unnerving. Then of course there’s the Portfolio’s Eurocentrism, which demands acknowledgement.

The most interesting thing about the Index shows to me personally though, is how art centers used them to foster community. In recent years, institutions like the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History have developed pop-up museums and other kinds of community-curated outreach that invite community members to exhibit personal objects alongside collection pieces. To paraphrase Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance, such collaborative projects aim to render the museum collections relevant to visitors. By encouraging viewers to share their objects, museums invite visitors to share in the curatorial process through introducing their own objects and stories.

To be fair, the objectives of the CACP were somewhat different from museums today. Whereas collaborative curatorial experiences like those of the Santa Cruz Museum aim to democratize the curatorial process, the CACP was more interested in fostering FAP support within the community. Art center directors wanted to get viewers interested in the projects so that they’d tell their Congressmen to keep supporting them. They recognized that one way to do this was to get visitors involved personally. In seeing their own objects alongside the Index plates, viewers could get a personal understanding of the project’s efforts, and perhaps even envision their own antiques entering the canon of American design.

Rightfully Cautious

Not all community members eagerly accepted the Index. After the Roswell Museum’s successful showing, the San Miguel Community Art Center in Las Vegas wanted to undertake a similar exhibition event, inviting community members to share their local antiques. Yet as their director pointed out, many local residents were suspicious of the Index and its intent. Hispano residents were particularly cautious of the endeavor. They’d already seen what could happen when white collectors entered their homes to purchase bultos, santos, and other religious carvings, only to turn around and sell them at a higher price to other collectors.

The cautious outlook of Las Vegas residents speaks to the fraught history of cultural tourism in New Mexico. Tourism has long been an important part of the state’s economy. Yet the exchanges between white collectors and the Indigenous and Hispano makers whose works they purchased were complicated, speaking to social and economic disparities stemming from race and class. As early as the 1920s, artists like John Sloan satirized New Mexico’s cultural tourism through humorous, incisive etchings, emphasizing the absurdity of white, Northern tourists preserving an “authentic” New Mexico through their collecting.

Next Month’s Exhibition

So there you have it for the Index shows. Next month, we’ll take one more trip on the Artmobile. This time though, we’ll look at the first show curated for its big brother, Artmobile II. See you then!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *