Del Mar couple Bram and Sandra Dijkstra offer a new look at WPA art
WPA: Do those initials mean anything to you?
They would if you were living in this country in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when millions of people were out of work. As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Workers Progress Administration began offering employment to desperate jobseekers, originally on construction of public works like roads, parks, and buildings. The WPA’s Federal Art Project then went on to offer living wages to thousands of artists, writers, and theater professionals, some of whose names you may recognize, like Jackson Pollack, Ralph Ellison, and Orson Welles.
Murals and other artworks were originally displayed in public places where ordinary people could see them, but drawings and paintings were not kept in safe storage. In 1943, many of them—unframed—were auctioned off by the government and sold by the pound. Others were merely lost as the decades went by.
But from now through Nov. 5, at the Oceanside Museum of Art, you’ll have a chance to see “Art for the People,” a striking exhibit of WPA-era paintings by artists you may never have heard of before.
The 46 paintings on view are from the far larger collection of Bram and Sandra Dijkstra, a Del Mar couple who have been thoughtful collectors for most of their lives. Bram, a Dutchman born in Indonesia, was the original collector: as a young teenager he fell in love with a recording of saxophonist John Coltrane and began collecting American jazz records. He made it to the U.S. at age 20 and ended up with a PhD in English Literature from UC Berkeley and a 35-year career as a professor at UC San Diego, authoring a number of books along the way.
Sandra, born in the Bronx, went to Berkeley for a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature in 1963. She crashed a party for grad students in the English department, nearly got ejected, and came face to face with Bram. They spent the rest of that evening together, speaking in French.
“We knew each other for two weeks, and I already knew I wanted to marry him,” she confessed, in a recent interview. “He proposed to me on New Year’s Day 1964, and we got married in February. He introduced me to jazz, art, and joy.”
After Bram got his first teaching position at UCSD, Sandra went for her PhD in French Literature. She taught for a few years, then became a masterful literary agent, steering writers like Amy Tan and Lisa See into grand successes.
The Dijkstras’ collections of art and music have filled the Del Mar home they’ve lived in for almost six decades, and lately they’ve been sharing some of the things that have brought so much joy to their lives. Earlier this year, after showing a selection of their collected works by San Diego artists at San Diego History Center, they donated 15 pieces to the Center. At about the same time, they donated the Dijkstra Black Music Collection—now 8,000-records strong—to Stanford University. And there are more exhibitions to come.
But back to the current exhibit at the Oceanside Museum of Art. If you’ve mostly thought of the WPA period in terms of photographers like Dorothea Lange, this is a great time to widen your horizons. And if you think Depression-era artworks are depressing, you’ll see other kinds of visions in “Art for the People,” which the Dijkstras hope will broaden the concept of what people think of as WPA art.
Thankfully, you have plenty of time to see this exhibit, and you can take home a fine memento of what you’ve seen if you stop by the gift shop, where they have a book-size catalog on sale just inside the door.
Art for the People: WPA-Era Paintings from the Dijkstra Collection
Oceanside Museum of Art
704 Pier View Way, Oceanside
On view through Nov. 5.
For museum hours, entrance fees, exhibits and events: oma-online.org
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