Art appreciation -- A history of the Air Force Art Program

  • Published
  • By Mark W. Nelson
  • ARPC Historian
By now, many of you may have noticed a change in scenery as you walk down the east hallway at the Air Reserve Personnel Center, here. The old directorate picture boards are gone, and in their place are framed paintings with small metal plates bearing the names of the artwork and the artist. These paintings are diverse in style, color usage and age, but they all have something in common -- they are part of the Air Force Art Program and are on loan to ARPC. 

Several questions have consistently been asked of me since the paintings were hung up. Most people have never heard of this program, and they also have no idea what it's about. As the ARPC historian, I am tasked with maintaining the inventory of the Air Force art that is on display here. I felt it was important to share with you a little history and background of this program, why we have one, what the collection is worth, and when it started. 

I am indebted to Russell D. Kirk, the Director of the Air Force Art Program in Washington, D.C., for providing me with the in-depth information presented here. So, to paraphrase many of the questioners, "What is the Air Force Art Program?" 

The military tradition of recording experiences of Soldiers and Sailors in peace and in war is an ancient one. Before the advent of the war correspondent and the camera, military artists provided the only source of illustration of battles and countries at war. As far back in time as the Roman Empire, military artists accompanied armies to document battle scenes and tell the stories of war to later generations of citizens. 

Our American experience reveals that history seen through art is very important. How many of you remember seeing "The Spirit of '76," by Archibald Willard? And almost everyone remembers Emmanuel Leutze's stirring painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware." 

Although the Air Force Art Program is a comparative "newcomer" in this area, it carries on the fine tradition of documenting the military way of life through the medium of art. The U.S. Air Force art collection documents the story of the Air Force through the universal language of art. The actions and deeds of Air Force people are recorded in paintings by eminent American artists in a way words alone could never tell. These paintings are both historical and educational and expose the military and the public to the role and diverse capabilities of the U.S. Air Force. 

The program began in 1950 with the transfer from the U.S. Army of some 800 works of art documenting the early days of the Army Air Corps. Besides this, Gen. Curtis LeMay initiated a "portrait" program of senior officers. The portraits and works of such noted artists as French air combat pilot-artist Henri Farre in World War I and British World War II artist and war correspondent Frank E. Beresford, as well as captured German art from World War II, constituted the nucleus of the collection. Today, it serves as a valuable historical record of military aviation through the first half of the 20th century. 

The concept of an official program designed to document the Air Force history through art was born in the early 1950s. Responsibility for the growing collection of donated art that would tell the Air Force story was given to the secretary of the Air Force, office of information services. 

Since much of the "combat art" produced during World War II was used to support domestic and foreign public information programs, this was a natural fit. Historians at that time also belonged to the information services career field. Thus, the Art Program became a part of the civil liaison division of the office of information services to document the Air Force history. 

A major turning point for the program occurred in 1952, when the Air Force met with the well-known Society of Illustrators of New York, inviting them formally to participate in the U.S. Air Force Art Program. They enthusiastically accepted the invitation, setting into motion the mechanism where civilian artists, members of the Society of Illustrators, were sent on officially sponsored trips to Air Force installations all over the world. Later, the Societies of Illustrators of Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Midwest Air Force Artists, the Southwest Society of Air Force Artists, and numerous independent artists joined the program. 

So, how does the Air Force obtain these artworks? Those produced by the officially sponsored trips are "donated" to the Air Force, usually as "gifts to the government." The secretary of the Air Force accepts the artwork on behalf of the country and the Air Force, and the societies review the works of their members before offering them as gifts. Such "formal" presentations were as glamorous as a New York society art show, and every year the societies (and the Air Force) hosted a formal art presentation to unveil and exhibit the latest works. 

Although there have been some changes in the program since its inception, it has retained the essential characteristics it started with -- art supporting Air Force public relations and support of the documentation of art. Currently, there are about 10,000 pieces of artwork in the collection, and the value placed on them is inestimable. Since many of the artists normally are commissioned to do artwork in the thousands and tens of thousand dollar range, Mr. Kirk, the program director, says that the dollar value is probably more than $20 million. Yet the Air Force never had to pay anything for these priceless works, since the artists donated them all. 

So next time you walk down the east hallway, take a good look at the beautiful art pieces. There is something there for everyone's taste in art, and you may learn a little bit more about our Air Force and its proud history in the process.