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The Chicago Mural Preservation Project


By Heather Becker

The Chicago Public Schools house the largest remaining collection of WPA and pre-WPA murals in America. The story begins in 1994 when a teacher, Flora Doody, at Lane Technical High School contacted the Chicago Conservation Center requesting a survey of the school's deteriorating art collection. This discovery inspired Heather Becker of the Chicago Conservation Center to establish a two-year research project to find and document all of the remaining murals in the Chicago Public Schools.

ArtistThe vast collection of murals created in the Chicago Public Schools, prior and during the Depression era, fell into ruin and were forgotten by the public for more than fifty years. The murals dating from 1904-1943 were found severely damaged and veiled under decades of dirt and grime. Others were found under layers of paint, torn off the walls, placed in storage rooms or destroyed. Over 400 murals still exist in the Chicago Public Schools, making it the largest remaining mural collection from the early 20th Century in the country.

As the collection was reawakened, a unique art program for preservation and education was fostered to make others aware of the collection's diverse cultural heritage. The vision and determination of a few people blossomed into a valuable art program. The research, preservation and educational programs presented are the first of their kind in the nation, establishing Chicago as an innovator for public art awareness. This is the story of how these Chicago Public School treasures were reawakened in the public eye.

MuralThe project's preservation and education concepts resemble the government's original goals of the WPA to broaden the average American's experience of art and culture. The government's patronage of the arts during the depression, in essence, represents a birth of public art in America. Chicago's mural collection symbolizes a change for the arts in America and serves as a reminder of art's undeniable ability to act as a powerful record of a people, place and time.

This documentary reviews the discoveries, conservation treatments, history, educational components and future of the Mural Preservation Project. The Mural Preservation Project is funded by the Chicago Public Schools and the Public Building Commission. The documentary was produced by Orbis Broadcast Group's David Manilow and Danielle Addair, written by Heather Becker and David Manilow and edited by Wayne Kumingo.

The City of Chicago's Public Building Commission has also funded a book written by Heather Becker titled, "Art for the People: The Mural Reference Book for the Chicago Public Schools". The book is a historic guide to murals from 1904 to1943 housed in classrooms, hallways, libraries and auditoriums of the Chicago Public Schools.

MuralThe book's goal is to document and celebrate the unprecedented effort by the American government to bring art to the people and includes essays by original artists, historians, scholars, teachers, principals, students and city representatives.

The interleaved stories create an overview of the collection's effect on education, public art, American history, preservation, school curriculum and art programming. The body of the book reviews the history of each mural and their parenting school. Ultimately emerging, is the collection's ability to uniquely educate future American generations.

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