By Michelle Gallagher Roberts
In early 2007, staff at the New Mexico Museum of Art were implementing the first phase of planned collecting storage renovations that required all artworks from the first collection storage room be removed from the space to allow for the installation of new state-of-the-art compact art storage. More than 1,700 artworks had to be inventoried and relocated in the span of nine days.
Museums use unique identifying numbers, called accession numbers, to track objects and to refer to the object’s associated paperwork and computer record. Sometimes objects become separated from their accession numbers; other times, accession numbers are not assigned for a variety of reasons. Museum staff work hard to ensure this does not happen, but when it does, these objects over time earn the designation “found in collection,” or FIC. Staff changes, and memories become hazy about how and why an object is at the museum. The status of these objects can be difficult to resolve, although the museum profession has developed a series of best practices around these types of objects. No matter how diligent a staff is, inevitably something turns up “found in collection.”
Given the nature of inventories and collection moves, it is during these times that the most FICs are identified. The Museum of Art’s 2007 renovation was no exception. Since the space had to be emptied, every corner and top shelf was investigated. Located on top of a shelving unit in the back of the room were two folded canvases wrapped in plastic. The canvases lacked identifying marks or signatures, except for the initials “PWAP” written in pencil on the back. On the canvases were unfinished landscapes. The first depicted a Southwest composition with reddish land formations, cliffs, and a grayish-blue sky. The second canvas was also of a Southwest scene, but with a stream at the center trickling through reddish bluffs. The composition apparently extended past the edges of the canvas, suggesting that both paintings had been cut down.
Museum staff were on a tight schedule for the renovation and couldn’t take the time to track down the works’ attributions or paperwork. The canvases were photographed, tagged with an FIC number, and relocated with the rest of the art. Once the renovation was complete, the collection and registration staff returned to the FIC works identified during the move. Staff examined the condition of the paintings, recorded measurements, and rolled the unstretched canvases onto archival tubes. Because the artist applied the paint thinly, cracking of the paint is unlikely.
As a first step in identifying FICs, museum staff have some standard searches they run in the computer database that tracks all objects in the collection. If that doesn’t turn up an easy answer, they are often familiar enough with the idiosyncrasies of the collection they work with every day in order to look for those fruitful nuggets of information that can answer their questions; but for the most part, identifying FICs can be serendipitous. One right piece of information can lead to another, and finally to the answer. Each FIC is a mystery where the clues must be followed to the end—and, in the case of these two unfinished canvases, the only clue was the initials PWAP. Through previous work with the collection, PWAP was known to stand for Public Works of Art Project.
In the 1930s, the Southwest, and New Mexico in particular, had been hard-hit by economic depression, prolonged drought, and dust storms. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected during the worst economic and agricultural collapse in the history of the United States. Roosevelt pledged “a New Deal to aid the forgotten man,” and drafted numerous policies to relieve unemployment and boost local and state economies.
A number of New Deal programs employed art to boost confidence and inspire people by portraying the history and culture of America through images of everyday life. The first federal program with these lofty goals was the Public Works of Art Project. The program began in December 1933 and ran for six months. New Mexico and its residents were eager to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity. Less than one month after the program began, New Mexico artists were ready to go. Through the PWAP, artists were commissioned to decorate parks and public buildings such as post offices and courthouses.
Many names now synonymous with the Santa Fe and New Mexico art scene were involved in the PWAP. Jesse Nusbaum became the PWAP regional administrator for New Mexico and Arizona. In 1930, he had been named the first director of the Laboratory of Anthropology and had overseen important civic projects in prior years, such as the rehabilitation of the Palace of the Governors, and the design and construction of the New Mexico Museum of Art building on the Plaza. Gustave Baumann, noted woodblock artist, carver, and marionette maker, was the field coordinator for the PWAP.
PWAP artists were classified into three categories. Class A included professional fine artists who worked primarily in frescoes, oil paintings, watercolors, etchings, and sculpture; they were the primary recipients of PWAP funds. They were paid $2 an hour for twenty hours a week. From this money, they had to provide their own supplies, except for large projects requiring expensive canvases. Walter Ufer, Victor Higgins, Kenneth Adams, Olive Rush, Emil Bisttram, Ward Lockwood, and Bert Philips, to name a few, were all enthusiastic participants in the program. Class B included less experienced artists. They earned $27.50 a week for twenty hours. Laborers and craftspeople comprised Class C. These would include weavers, wood carvers, and pottery makers. This group would often assist the fresco painters in the preparation of the walls. For mural projects, the PWAP required artists to submit a series of sketches and drawings for pre-approval, and the final product had to fit an assigned space, such as over a doorway or around a window.
Another well-known Santa Fe artist eager to participate in the PWAP was Gerald Cassidy. Like many others, Cassidy first came to New Mexico in 1890 when he was stricken with pneumonia while studying and working in New York. That pneumonia degenerated into tuberculosis. Given six months to live, he was sent to a sanatorium in Albuquerque. However, he quickly recovered in the dry climate of New Mexico. While here, he became taken with the light and vibrant colors of the state.
One of ten children, Ira Diamond (Dymond) Gerald Cassidy was born in Covington, Kentucky, in November 1869. When he was a small child, his family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. His first art lessons were at the Institute of Mechanical Arts, now known as the Cincinnati Art Institute. Cassidy studied with Frank Duveneck, a famous painter at the Institute; Duveneck encouraged Cassidy to work in lithography, so Cassidy joined one of his older brothers in New York City to work as a lithographer for the Miner Company. He would become known as one of the four best commercial lithographers in the country. At night he studied at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. At the time of his TB diagnosis, Cassidy was the art director at a lithography firm. While lithography was his profession, he always dreamed of painting.
When his health improved, he moved to Denver to resume his lithography career. In Denver, he met and married Ina Sizer Davis. They moved to Santa Fe on January 1, 1912. According to Ina, Cassidy’s one wish was to be a painter. When the couple returned to New Mexico, she encouraged Cassidy to pursue his passion for painting landscapes and the Native American people of the Southwest.
In 1914, Edgar Lee Hewett, founder and director of the Museum of New Mexico, was arranging the exhibitions for the New Mexico Building for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. Preceded by a letter of recommendation, Cassidy met with Hewett, who subsequently commissioned the artist to paint fifteen mural panels for the Indian Arts Building. During this same period, Cassidy was tasked with celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal at an exposition in San Francisco with another mural. His central panel from the Panama-California Exposition, which illustrated a cliff dwelling from the Southwest, won a gold medal and the grand prize. Also on display was Cassidy’s now-iconic painting Cui Bono?, which he would later donate to the New Mexico Museum of Art and was featured in the museum’s inaugural exhibit.
In 1917, the Cassidys decided to travel to Europe. They reached New York before their plans were halted by World War I. Unable to return to Santa Fe, the Cassidys stayed in New York, where he earned a reputation for producing excellent portraits and murals. During this time, Cassidy painted murals for the Gramatan Hotel in Bronxville, New York, and private homes. At the end of WWI, they returned to Santa Fe, where Cassidy continued painting portraits and murals. His murals include Dawn of the West, painted for the high school in Golden, Colorado; a mural of Robin Hood in a private home in Houston, Texas; and two murals commissioned for the Onate Theatre in Santa Fe.
Located on the corner of the Santa Fe Plaza that is currently occupied by the First National Bank, the Onate Theatre murals depicted the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado riding his great white horse with some of his cavalry and a Franciscan priest. Cassidy used the faces of his friends and neighbors to depict the figures. The second mural depicts a Zuni Pueblo warrior, armed and defiant. For the central figure, Cassidy used a portrait of Julian Martinez, the late husband of the famous San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez.
These murals traveled a twisting path to their current location. After the Onate Theatre closed, it was converted to a parking garage. According to a 1979 Santa Fe New Mexican article, “the great murals were deplorably confined ‘in the dark and oily recesses’ of the garage.” They were later purchased by John Hardin of Oklahoma City, who moved them to his hotel in Hobbs, New Mexico, and then to his hotel in Acapulco, Mexico. They eventually made their way back to New Mexico when Hardin donated them to the state of New Mexico in 1948 with the provision that the paintings never leave the state again. These murals spent some time in the Museum of Art’s storage before they were transferred in 1962 to the federal government and conserved by John Pogzeba. They can now be seen in the lobby of Santa Fe’s Joseph M. Montoya Federal Building located on Federal Place, just north of the Plaza.
In the 1920s, the Cassidys were finally able to spend a year traveling through Europe and North Africa, supported by a benefactor. These travels spawned numerous works and international acclaim for Cassidy. Cassidy’s paintings were included in a number of exhibitions in Berlin, Paris, and Vienna, and were added to a museum collection in Berlin and to the Luxembourg Palace.
Like many artists, the Cassidys bore the weight of the economic collapse of the 1930s, but Cassidy was excited about the announced PWAP. He was the first artist selected for the program by Nusbaum. Cassidy was commissioned to complete several large-scale murals for the Federal Courthouse on Federal Place in Santa Fe. Per the requirements of the PWAP, Cassidy submitted sketches for two murals: one of Chaco Canyon and one of Canyon de Chelly. These two drawings would later be transformed into the two FIC paintings in storage at the Museum of Art.
Cassidy rented an empty store space to complete these large canvases in the middle of winter. Gas for heating and cooking had just been introduced to Santa Fe, and the studio’s heater had been incorrectly installed. According to Nusbaum,
Cassidy “had a big canvas to get started the way he does. He worked with a fire in there, and he had to dope it, the canvas, to stretch it out and get it ready. It was cold weather and they kept the building tight, and he inhaled too much of the fumes. … He didn’t last long after that.”
The turpentine fumes and carbon monoxide combined into a lethal combination. After drinking his noon coffee with his wife at home, Cassidy died on February 12, 1934.
Nusbaum would also call Cassidy “one of the fellows that worked the hardest.” Ina Sizer Cassidy would later say her husband “gave his life for the WPA,” using the abbreviation of the better-known Works Progress Administration.
Many of Santa Fe’s most well-known figures in the art world were pallbearers at his funeral at the Masonic Temple: Sheldon Parson, Carlos Vierra, Will Shuster, William Penhallow Henderson, Kenneth Chapman, Gustave Baumann, and Jesse Nusbaum. After the funeral, a group of friends raised funds by public subscription to purchase a work from Ina. They donated View of Santa Fe Plaza in the 1850s (End of the Trail) to the New Mexico Historical Society as a memorial. In 1977, when the Historical Society made the decision to no longer collect, the work was transferred to the New Mexico Museum of Art’s collection.
After Cassidy’s death, the Federal Courthouse mural project was assigned to his friend and fellow artist William Penhallow Henderson. Henderson’s completed murals can be seen today throughout the halls.
But what happened to the canvases that Cassidy was working on when he died? Cassidy had received his hourly wage for the work, and the canvas material was presumably paid for by the PWAP. Like Cassidy’s Onate Theatre murals, they were on a winding path.
In a lucky twist of fate, black-and-white photographs were taken of the preparatory sketches and of one of the canvases-in-progress in Cassidy’s studio space. One of the sketches for Canyon de Chelly was sent to the National Park Service director’s office. The photographs were placed in the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives’ PWAP collection. The photograph showcasing the in-situ canvas has been published in a number of books discussing the history of the PWAP.
It was through Jacqueline Hoefer’s A More Abundant Life: New Deal Artists and Public Art in New Mexico that this writer made the connection between Cassidy and the FIC canvases in the collection storage of the New Mexico Museum of Art. A comparison of the imagery showed that one of the FIC paintings was clearly a cut-down version of Cassidy’s Chaco Canyon. A request to the New Mexico State Archives yielded the additional photographs of Cassidy’s last works. Comparing the second FIC canvas to the images showed a similar cut-down version of Cassidy’s Canyon de Chelly composition.
There are no records found that explain why these two canvases were cut down or what happened to the other sections. It is also not known why these two sections were given to the Museum of Art, although it can be speculated.
The museum currently holds the largest collection of artworks in New Mexico created under all the New Deal programs.
It would make sense these unfinished paintings would make their way through the museum’s doors.
Artworks created under many of the New Deal programs remain under the ownership of the federal government. Currently, more than 150 works that are owned by the federal government are cared for by the New Mexico Museum of Art under a long-term loan agreement.
With the PWAP designation on the back of the canvases, these works were originally listed as untitled and by an unknown artist. Once the connection was made to Cassidy’s PWAP work, their listing was updated. Attribution and ownership of these works has been clarified and a unique identifying number has been assigned so they can’t become disassociated with their records again. Given the unique set of circumstances surrounding these canvases, it isn’t surprising they became separated from their origins—but they are no longer listed as “found in collection.”
Beyond the imagery and their appearance, many objects capture a distinct moment in time. The unassuming, unfinished canvases forgotten on a shelf in the collection storage of the New Mexico Museum of Art encapsulate a unique slice in U.S. history and the final moments of a talented artist’s life. It is only fitting that they came back into the light after eighty-seven years.
Michelle Gallagher Roberts is currently the deputy director and former head of Registration & Collection at the New Mexico Museum of Art. She was lead on the 2007 collection move and renovation.