One of the 40 images in "Picturing America" is more timely than Cole could have suspected when the project was launched in February. It is a photograph of Manhattan's Chrysler Building.
Built between 1926 and 1930 -- between the giddy ascent of the '20s stock market and the Crash -- this art deco monument to the might of America's automobile industry is decorated with motifs of machines and streamlining. There are winged forms of a Chrysler radiator cap; an ornamental frieze replicates a band of hubcaps. The stainless steel of the famous spire suggests the signature of the automobile industry in its salad days -- chrome.
To understand the animal spirits that drove New York's skyscraper competition -- the Chrysler Building was the world's tallest for less than a year, until the Empire State Building was completed 202 feet higher -- is to understand an era. Two eras, actually -- the one that built the building, and ours, which has reasons to be reminded of the evanescence of seemingly solid supremacies.
After seven years of service, Cole, the longest-serving chairman in the 43-year history of the NEH, is leaving to head the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge. America has thousands of museums, including the Studebaker National Museum (South Bend, Ind.), the Packard Museum (Dayton, Ohio) -- yes, Virginia, there was a time when automobile companies were allowed to perish -- the Hammer Museum (Haines, Alaska), the Mustard Museum (Mount Horeb, Wis.), and the Spam Museum (Austin, Minn.) featuring the sort-of-meat, not the Internet annoyance. There is, however, no museum devoted to the most important political event that ever happened, here or anywhere else -- the American Revolution.
Cole says there will be one, at Valley Forge. It will be built mostly by private money, for an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the sum of public money currently being lavished on corporations. Perhaps a subsequent iteration of "Picturing America" will feature a thought-provoking photograph of the gleaming towers that currently house, among other things, General Motors' headquarters. Looming over Detroit's moonscape desolation, the building is called the Renaissance Center. Really.