Since the beginning of civilization, mankind has been recording its battles and conquests in the form of art. The stories and outcomes of conflicts can be seen in tablets from Mesopotamia dating back to 3000 B.C., in Egyptian art from 1190 B.C. and in the art of many cultures: Aztec, Mayan, Indian, Chinese, Greek and Roman to name but a few. Even with the advent of modern methods of narration and documentation, art continues to offer a unique and compelling way to immortalize the contributions of America’s military services to the nation.
The Coast Guard’s art program is among the youngest of the art programs run by a military service. It traces its beginning back to 1980 when artist George Gray was chair of the Navy Art Cooperation and Liaison Committee at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. When the Navy phased out this program, the Coast Guard asked Gray to create a similar program for the service. From the start, the Salmagundi Club sponsored the art program providing invaluable support and artistic guidance. By having such a renowned and respected cultural entity as sponsor, the once fledging art program was given prestige it otherwise would not have initially enjoyed.
Today the collection comprises some 1,950 works of art, with the majority being paintings. While there are works depicting combat, there are many others that show Coast Guard sea and air assets and Coast Guard service members in action as they conduct the myriad missions of the service.
Coast Guard artists, many of whom are professional artists, volunteer their time and talents to visually tell the Coast Guard’s story. They give their works to the service—and by extension, to the nation—and receive no compensation. Every year, artist members are asked to submit works for that year’s collection. A jury is convened in New York City in the beginning of the year to review the submissions. Only those of the highest artistic merit and accuracy in depicting missions are accepted into that year’s collection.
In the summer, the annual inaugural exhibition of new work is held at the Salmagundi Club. During the opening reception an acceptance ceremony is held and new art is officially given to the Coast Guard and accepted by the service.
The program organizes exhibitions of work in the collection at museums and other public venues across the nation. Art is also displayed at Coast Guard Headquarters, units in the field and for major Coast Guard events such as the Change of Command for the Commandant and the State of the Coast Guard address. Coast Guard art can also be found on display in offices of members of Congress, senior officials of the executive branch of government and other military services.