Beginning on April 29, Phoenix Art Museum visitors will have a chance to see a Museum favorite through a new lens. The upcoming exhibition Philip C. Curtis: The New Deal and American Regionalism will explore the story of one of Arizona’s most historically-significant artists from a fresh point of view, placing the beloved painter’s works within the context of the Great Depression decade of the mid-1930s through World War II. The exhibition highlights the work of Philip C. Curtis not only as a painter, but also as a museum administrator and arts advocate. His career exemplified the success of federal programs that fostered unprecedented artistic creativity across the country, and his efforts would ultimately change the course of Phoenix’s artistic legacy and institutions for many years to come.
“It is a privilege to explore the work of Philip C. Curtis in this new light,” said Amada Cruz, the Sybil Harrington Director and CEO of Phoenix Art Museum. “Curtis is a cherished, constant presence in the life of our Museum, and this exhibition will enrich our understanding of his career. This exhibition also represents a wonderful opportunity to re-examine the history behind the founding of Phoenix Art Museum, in which Curtis played a pivotal role. The themes in this exhibition will be meaningful to all those who care about the Phoenix arts community, as it speaks to the importance of strategically supporting the arts, and the impact our choices may make long into the future.”
The exhibition explores the time period between the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, during which Curtis made a lasting impact on the future of the Phoenix arts community. Curtis came to Phoenix in 1937 to run the Phoenix Federal Art Center (the success of which eventually led to the founding of Phoenix Art Museum). This time was a transformative era for artists in the United States, during which government-sponsored works programs included features that specifically aided artists. Artists were commissioned to create Post Office murals, poster graphics, and documentation for the Farm Security Administration. The federal government became a major patron of the arts for a relatively modest investment, and a period of artistic abundance ensued. Through help from these programs, the city of Phoenix experienced the powerful influence that artists and art advocates could have on the life and future of a community. The civic traditions established during this time, particularly the idea that art-making opportunities should become widely available to anyone in a community, would eventually become the catalyst for the founding of Phoenix Art Museum.
“It’s exciting to broaden our knowledge of the styles Curtis worked in during different time periods and locations,” said Betsy Fahlman, the Museum’s adjunct curator of American art who curated the exhibition. “Additionally, the work he supported as an administrator is equally fascinating. The quality, not to mention the range of themes, of the pieces on view by other artists serve as a testament to the impact of federally-funded arts programs that transformed our national art landscape after the Great Depression.”
This exhibition features works by Curtis before, during, and after his time in Phoenix, as well as works by other artists supported by federal programs including two of the Center’s teachers, Lew Davis and Kathleen Wilson. The broad scope of the exhibition touches on a web of themes, all interconnected through the art and personal history of Curtis within this era. The exhibition explores the styles with which Curtis experimented, including Post-Impressionism and abstraction. Works by other artists touch on themes from Arizona geography and heavy industry to women artists, and Native Americans. Images of Arizona’s Japanese internment camps, instituted at the beginning of World War II, will be included on a wall panel.