The Dust Bowl, the latest undertaking of documentarian Ken Burns, premiered on Sunday night on PBS. Packed full of interviews with people who lived through it, film and photography from the period, and historical perspectives from numerous smart-seeming professor types, Burns tells the story of one of the greatest ecological disasters in American History (though we are working hard on topping it). Long story short, to bring everyone up to speed—the Dust Bowl refers to both a region and a time—the south central United States in the 1930s—when the combination of unsophisticated farming techniques and droughts ravaged the land, transforming once thriving natural grasslands into a parched, eroded hellscape. On top of this, the U.S. agricultural economy experienced a wheat bubble encouraged by the Government, and popped by the onset of the Great Depression. A toxic mix of bad luck and bad ideas.
Yes, good question, what does this have to do with the Art Institute? First off, smart guy, Ken Burns just happens to have spoken recently in our own Fullerton Hall. Cosponsored by WTTW, the night of conversation gave the filmmaker the chance to talk about how great the Art Institute is (the envy of New Yorkers? YES.) and give us a look into the process of making The Dust Bowl. Burns knew it was a topic he wanted to explore. Several years ago, he realized the clock was ticking on finding first-hand interviewees, and so began his research. He cast a wide net, posting a call for interview subjects throughout hundreds of nursing homes throughout the region and, in the end, found 29 participants; The Dust Bowl features nearly all of them.
That's not all! The Dust Bowl was a central subject for the famed photographers of Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Marion Post Wolcott rose to prominence after their involvement in the FSA effort to "show America to Americans" and subsequently defined a key photographic aesthetic of the 20th century. The Art Institute, of course (OF COURSE), holds significant works by these artists, including the iconic image above by Dorothea Lange, featuring a migrant farm worker displaced by the dust bowl.
So, if you missed The Dust Bowl's premiere, check your PBS listings for other opportunities. If you're casting about for something to be thankful for this Thursday, it should give you some perspective.
Image Credit: Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936, printed later. Bequest of Michael Cohen.