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Remembering the Family Farm: 150 Years of American Prints

August 22 - November 9, 2003


Surveying over 150 years, this exhibition documents changes in agriculture and features images of the imperiled family farm. The exhibition looks at historical scenes of farming from across the United States, with a section devoted to farming in California. The story is told primarily through prints-lithographs, etchings, engravings, etc.-a democratic medium that has historically been affordable to a broad audience.

Printmakers have been tireless recorders of the American experience. In the nineteenth-century, the publishing firm of Currier & Ives produced countless lithographs detailing everything from American ships and trains to scenes of hunting and farming. During the 1930s and 1940s, many American artists worked hard to record the "American scene," drawing inspiration from the city and from rural America, as do many artists today.

Recent years have witnessed the decline of the traditional family farm, although the buildings, the soil and the social fabric have been under attack for much longer. In many instances acreage has been sub-divided into smaller building sites while in others family farmland has been taken over by agri-business. These and other economic and demographic problems have resulted is the erosion of a way of life. In the state of California, farming has always played a central role, particularly here in the Central Valley. With abundant and fertile land and a relatively temperate climate, it has, throughout its history, boasted an abundance of diverse agricultural crops. Though the independent family farm has a long history in American culture at large, actual family farms did not have the physical, practical presence in California that has existed in other regions in the United States, especially the Midwest. Here, the majority of agricultural production has long been in the hands of big business. Due to land monopolies that were established early in the state's history, only a small percentage of California's agricultural land has been owned and operated by smaller, self-sufficient farmers. Nevertheless, California farming is represented by images representing the diversity of the industry, including vegetable and grain farming, orchards, and livestock.

The exhibition is organized according to agricultural activities and buildings, beginning with prints that show farms in their entirety, then scenes of plowing, haying, cultivation, and other aspects of the farm such as farmhouses and fencing. Even when these prints are frankly nostalgic or sentimental, they have much to offer for our understanding of the rich varieties of the American farm, its built environment, its traditions, and its customs. In taking this approach, the exhibition includes the work of both famous and little-known artists, which together offer fresh and rewarding insights into the wealth of American printmaking.

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