Art of Labor: Smithsonian Exhibit Focuses on Ordinary Workers

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By Jacquie Lee

As the holiday season winds down, so does the emphasis on charity and marginalized communities, but an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington highlights a different group that’s often forgotten by history: ordinary workers.

The exhibit “The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers” shows the evolution of labor and laborers throughout U.S. history, from farm hands to factory workers. The exhibit is intended to highlight what one curator calls a clash between elite and popular cultures.

“Who gets in?” is the question that inspired the American Workers exhibit. The answer is typically “the rich and the famous,” Smithsonian curator and historian David C. Ward said. The gallery is part of the Smithsonian Institution and includes a permanent exhibit of presidential portraits.

But Ward and co-curator Dorothy Moss wanted to expand that answer to include the everyday men and women who shaped the country as much as any president or celebrity, Ward said.

The Gardener (Melissa with Bob Marley Shirt), by artist John Ahearn and sculptor Rigoberto Torres, is portrayed “as someone who should be respected,” the Portrait Gallery’s note says.

“It kind of flips the script by showing people who aren’t normally depicted through fine art portraiture,” he said.

Sentimental pieces like Norman Rockwell’s “Mine America’s Coal” were placed alongside portrayals of grueling work such as “Stoop Labor in Cotton Field” by Dorothea Lange.

Artwork Highlights Blue-Collar Concerns

Ward compared the nostalgia evoked by Rockwell to the emotion President Donald Trump tapped into during his campaign.

The exhibit’s “political subtext” emphasizes the evolution of the workplace that helped drive Trump’s ascendance: the decline of factories and a move toward fast food and domestic worker jobs. But it gives no insight into the future of labor, Ward said.

“There are structural changes in the economy no one knows what to do with,” he said. Perhaps art 10 years from now will be depicting Uber drivers and outsourced laborers, Ward said.

And while there may be political subtext embedded in the exhibit, “we’re not doing this against the backdrop of the first year of the Trump presidency,” Ward said. “The things we’re exhibiting have been going on for the last 100 years.”

The struggle for a better life and the evolution of work pop up in some of the exhibit’s oldest pieces, like Winslow Homer’s 1871 painting “Old Mill” ("The Morning Bell"). It shows a well-dressed woman walking into a mill, carrying her lunch box. Mills at the time were considered a major technological leap from grinding grain by hand. The painting seems to suggest workers’ march into a better life, away from a crude, agrarian lifestyle.

“The Portrait Gallery has a specific charter to depict people who have contributed to American history and culture,” Ward said. “Well, what does that mean? We’ve been grappling with that question for the last 20 years.”

The exhibit runs until Sept. 3.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacquie Lee in Washington at jlee1@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bloomberglaw.com

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