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U.S. Statehood, The Arts, 1912-1945

In the early 1920s painter Karl Von Hassler, one of the founders of the Ash Can School in New York,  arrived in Albuquerque and set up a studio in the Armijo House in Old Town (now La Placita Restaurant). He stayed the rest of his life. Over 47 years he produced memorable paintings of Southwestern landscapes and Native Americans. His murals can be seen at the KiMo Theatre, where for years he had a studio on the third floor..

Tuberculosis patients in the early 1900s contributed as much to the arts in Albuquerque as they did its economy.

In 1927 Kathryn Kennedy was a rising Broadway actress when she contracted tuberculosis. She came to Albuquerque to recover and married fellow actor and health seeker James O’Connor. In 1930 she and Irene Fisher, a Tribune reporter, decided Albuquerque should have a theater group and raised $1,000, not an easy task in the Depression. They opened to a packed house on the stage of the KiMo Theater. In 1936, with WPA funding, they built the Albuquerque Little Theatre, designed by John Gaw Meem, on land in the Country Club Neighborhood donated by W.A. Keleher and A.R. Hebenstreit. (One of ALT’s young performers was Vivian Jones, who would succeed in New York and later be cast as Lucille Ball’s sidekick in “I Love Lucy.”)

In 1932 Grace Thompson, who had also come here for her health, founded the Albuquerque Civic Symphony. Then head of the UNM music department, she decided that music would be soothing during the city’s business slump. She directed the orchestra herself. The symphony made its debut at Carlisle Gymnasium, and 2,000 people attended. She was one of the first women in the country to direct a city symphony, which she did until 1941.

Santa Fe and Taos weren’t the only New Mexico communities with artists’ colonies. With its kinder weather, Albuquerque drew its share of artists. By 1930 they were mostly living near Old Town and were known as the Greenwich Village Group.

During the Depression, the term “starving artist” was literal. One of the tasks of the Works Progress Administration was to put artists back to work by creating artwork for schools and public buildings. Three programs lasted from 1933 to 1943. Ultimately the program included some highly prominent New Mexico artists.

In Albuquerque artists Joseph Fleck, Gene Kloss, Emil Bisttram and Ila McAffee produced paintings that originally hung in the Veterans Hospital and Albuquerque High School. They’re now in the collections of the Albuquerque Museum.

In 1936 Loran Mozley painted a mural titled “The Rebellion of 1680” in the old federal courthouse at 421 Gold SW. Also in the building is “Justice Tempered with Mercy,” a 1937 mural by Emil Bisttram.

One of the city’s largest collections of WPA art is at Carrie Tingley Hospital. It includes two murals by Gisella Loeffler and a bronze sculpture by Oliver La Grone, the first African American art student to graduate from UNM.

UNM’s collection of Depression artworks is sizable and includes six oils by Willard Nash done in 1934. Other New Deal artists in the UNM collection are Kenneth M. Adams, Charles Barrows, Gene Kloss, Howard A. Barton, Dorothy Morang, James S. Morris, Helmuth Naumer, B.J. O. Nordfeldt, Joseph A. Imhoff and Brooks Willis. UNM has a gallery housed in the former home of artist Raymond Jonson, and many of his works are from this era.

Public Sculpture
The Daughters of the American Revolution, in the 1920s, decided to commemorate old roads and historic trails with a statue of a pioneer woman. It materialized as the Madonna of the Trail, designed by August Leimbach, an architectural sculptor. The ten-foot-tall statues were cast from cement made from Missouri granite (Algonite), which gave the statues a pinkish hue. The DAR intended to place them in 12 states.

In New Mexico they chose Santa Fe, the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, and proposed to place it on the plaza. After strenuous objections from artists and historians, the capitol city rejected the statue as bad art and questionable historical judgment. New Mexico’s pioneering mothers, after all, were not Anglo women in covered wagons.

In 1928 the Madonna of the Trail went to Albuquerque, where she graced McClellan Park near downtown, adjacent to 4th Street, then a segment of both El Camino Real and Route 66. The Albuqurque DAR members entombed a memory box in the statue’s base. In 1978, on its 50th anniversary, the DAR held a celebration. One of the events including extracting the memory box, but they couldn’t find it, even with equipment from Sandia. In 1996, when the city planned to make McClellan Park the site of the federal courthouse, it removed the statue and restored it. The DAR again hoped to find the memory box, but still no luck. The next week, workers who bulldozed the park and remains of the statue’s base found the box. It contained some newspaper clippings, two books and some ledgers.

The Madonna now stands in a new, grassy spot on the northwest corner of the site, facing west.

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