Don's diary: taking snaps in Miami

December 5, 2003

Monday
Halfway through a research fellowship and I've hit a brick wall.

I came to the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, founded by Mitchell Wolfson Junior, for its huge collection of 1930s New Deal art.

When I arrived, I expected to vindicate my argument, but now I have doubts about my proposal. I meet two friends who are here in Miami Beach for reasons other than this remarkable collection. They can't shift my mental block, but discussions of our recent sea-fishing exploits take my mind off the research. My amigos, about the only people round here who aren't acquaintances of the legendary collector "Mickey" Wolfson, depart for Heathrow. Back at my desk are London emails galore. I need a cocktail.

Tuesday
Fellowships supervisor Jon Mogul is recruiting an audience for my forthcoming presentation, but I am still not sure what to say. My quandary is this: under President Roosevelt, the Federal Writers' Project established "social-ethnic" units, studying and recording immigrant communities. I am searching (unsuccessfully) for something equivalent in federal art. Then I find artist Michael Lenson's scrapbook, containing photographs of his murals for a West Virginia post office, the 1939 World's Fair and various New Jersey public buildings. This improves my quest for evidence no end.

Wednesday
A trip to the Annex, the collection's off-site storage facility, brings me up close to the photographs. This makes the details I couldn't discern on the slide table clear, so the presentation is shaping up after all. Then it's back to my workstation to write up this visit. Jon pops in to say "don't panic, it's informal". I'm still panicking, but not as much as the Miami Beach police. A weekend rave is just around the corner and the authorities are getting nervous.

Thursday
In the absence of slides and with the conference room double-booked, the format of my presentation changes. But chief librarian Frank Luca finds a solution. I start snapping away with a digital camera and print out the results from a computer. After a few software hiccups, there's a pile of 20 prints in place with which to support my talk. The quality is a bit murky, but it's clear enough to see what's going on. Then, I am reminded of my decidedly non-tropical job back home by a load more emails from London.

Friday
The day of the talk arrives. Those present include historians, architects, collectors of New Deal art and even John Gladstone, a 1930s veteran who was six months too young for art project membership but made up for this by painting in the merchant marine.

What was FDR up to? How was the Section of Fine Arts different from the Federal Art Project? Questions flow and continue into the night over splendid examples of Haitian cuisine, but first we are whisked away to the Mitchell Wolfson Junior private collection, showing an exhibition of Friedolin Kessler prints. Kessler was an official "artist enrolee" at one of FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps camps. His prints and lithographs show plenty of evidence of concern with recent immigrants, primarily with their randy teenage sons in the CCC. So, presentation completed, it turns out that some of the materials I was looking for were in the weird and wonderful private collection all along.

Graham Barnfield has returned to University of East London after holding a Wolfsonian-Florida International University fellowship.

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