New Deal Art and Architecture
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MSU Auditorium, 1940
MSU Auditorium, 1940Bowd-Munson Architects

In 1938 the Public Works Administration allocated more than $500,000 toward the final cost of $1,025,000 for an auditorium to accommodate the academic and cultural activities of the growing MSU student body. Designed by O.J. Munson, the Gothic-inspired pointed arches and lancet windows on the entrance facade, and oak paneling, chandeliers, and white marble flooring of the lobby interior, reflect a desire for an elaborate structure to suit its cultural purpose. The limestone spandrels of the three identical entry portals are decorated with images of comedy, tragedy, musical instruments, and vines.

Munson’s building houses two theaters, the large Auditorium at the front entrance on Farm Lane and the smaller Fairchild Theater at the east entrance of the building, arranged with the proscenium in the center of the building. This set-up eliminates the need for duplicate technical equipment and lighting; however, it is often problematic to hold simultaneous performances.


We Assure Freedom to the Free, Proclamation of Emancipation,
The Modern Man I Sing, 1943 – 44
Charles Pollock (American, 1902 – 1988)
Casein on canvas
MSU Auditorium foyer

Three mural panels in the entrance foyer of the Auditorium display themes typical of government-sponsored art of the 1930s and 40s. Painted in casein on canvas, We Assure Freedom to the Free (1944), the central figure of Abraham Lincoln in Proclamation of Emancipation (1943), and the words of Walt Whitman in The Modern Man I Sing (1944), emphasize the importance of freedom. Depictions of political and economic struggles are combined with symbols of technological advances ranging from pioneer days to those contemporary to the 1940s. Pollock’s representational style, clear compositional rhythms and flat, evenly illuminated figures were likely influenced by the Mexican Muralists and American Scene paintings of the 1920's.

Although for many, the word mural is synonymous with fresco, a technique that involves the direct painting on wet plaster, most WPA artists rarely executed murals in true fresco. Besides lacking training in this technique, it was considered difficult, costly, and required assistants. Instead artists chose water-soluble paints such as tempera or casein, which have a matte finish close to the effects of fresco. Painting directly on canvas permitted artists to work off-site. Murals were then transferred to the intended location upon completion.

Kresge Art Museum