Most art museums seek to dazzle like Ali Baba's cave, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), which jointly reopen in the old Patent Office Building on July 1 after a six-year, $283 million renovation, greet visitors with a homey embrace. Touring the collections is like riffling through a family album or climbing into an attic rich with heirlooms. "One of the key things for me was striking the right balance between knowledge and experience," says SAAM director Elizabeth Broun. "There are certain people who are right at home in an art museum and others who might be intimidated."
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Says Eleanor Harvey, SAAM's chief curator: "We spent a lot of time trying to figure out why people are scared of art. How do you give people back the sense of exploration and wonder?" The answer: tell them a story. "People love stories," Harvey continues. "We decided to let the art tell stories about how we got to be the country we are today, so art is not a tangent to your life but an illumination.
Broun and Harvey's colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery came to much the same conclusion. Although the NPG is a newer museum, it was born prematurely gray; at its opening in 1968, it specialized in presidents and generals— "white men on horses," quips the museum's director, Marc Pachter. Over the following decades the NPG broadened its range and, in 2001, scrapped its requirement that portrait subjects be dead for at least ten years. "We had a joke about whether someone was dead enough," Pachter says. The decade-dead rule was intended to ensure historical perspective, but it worked against the museum's ability to connect to its audience. "We have expanded, along with the nation, our notion of the background and definition of greatness," Pachter adds. "What we have not abandoned is the notion that it is still important to think about greatness. Mediocrity is well represented elsewhere."
Through portraits of remarkable Americans, whether revered (George Washington) or notorious (Al Capone), the NPG attempts to explore the ways in which individuals determine national identity. "Our society is obsessed by the role of the individual," Pachter says, "from celebrity culture today to heroes of the past." By displaying art in thematic groupings, both the NPG and SAAM aim to provoke conversations about what it means to be an American.
The two museums share one of the most august spaces in the nation's capital—the neo-Classical Patent Office Building, which was built, starting in 1836, to showcase the ingenuity of inventors. Over the years, the glories of its architecture had been dulled by alterations made to satisfy demands of the moment; the closing of the museums in January 2000 permitted a renovation that has stripped these away. Administrative offices were banished to create new galleries that fill the three main floors. Hundreds of walled-up windows are now exposed, allowing light once again to flood the interior. The windows were refitted with new glass, which was handblown in Poland to reproduce the slight waviness of the originals and, in a nod to 21st-century technology, augmented with filters that screen out ultraviolet rays that can damage works of art. "People will be amazed that the building that looked like a dark cave is now probably the most beautifully lit building in the city," says Broun.
No longer reached through separate doorways, the two museums will welcome visitors through a grandly porticoed entrance on the building's south facade. But while visitors to the two museums may arrive together, the museums themselves came here by divergent paths. SAAM traces its origins back to a 19th-century collection of mainly European art put together by a civic-minded art enthusiast named John Varden. At first, Varden displayed these works to the public in a gallery attached to his home, but by 1841 he had moved them to the top floor of the newly opened Patent Office Building. Willed to the nation, the Varden holdings were transferred to the first Smithsonian Institution building, the Castle, in 1858, from which the ever-growing collection relocated to the Arts and Industries Building in 1906 and to the new Natural History Building four years later. Then, in 1958, Congress presented the Patent Office Building to the Smithsonian. In 1962, the Institution made the decision to divide the building's space between its art collection, vastly expanded from the original Varden bequest, and the National Portrait Gallery, which Congress created that same year.
Over the years SAAM—once called the National Collection of Fine Arts—has narrowed its mission to focus on American art, amassing one of the world's largest collections. The depth of the holdings allows the curators to present a nuanced narrative that can provoke a response from the viewer. "At the National Gallery and the Met," Harvey says, "what you see is an array of masterworks—gems in the tiara. Sometimes what you need to tell a complete story is more of a matrix of events and ideas that puts these masterworks in context. At SAAM, we're all about conversations."
And how best to start a conversation? In their new installations, SAAM curators chose to begin with landscapes. "One of the first things people usually ask in this country is 'Where are you from?' and the idea is that that information tells you something," Harvey explains. "We wanted to show how the physicality of America, from Niagara Falls to the Sierra Nevada, inflected how we developed as a country and a culture." Visitors who turn left at the main entrance to go to SAAM will be greeted by such Hudson River School paintings as Asher B. Durand's Dover Plain, Dutchess County, New York and by the even more expansive grandeur of the American West, as in Victor Higgins' Mountain Forms #2. The curators hope the landscapes will encourage visitors to think about broader issues—such as land development and conservation. But Broun emphasizes that SAAM is not a textbook. "It's 'What are the consistently relevant questions in every period?'" she says. "It's more about experience and insight than information." In this introductory exhibition, the curators have also hung a large group of the photographs of public monuments that Lee Friedlander has been taking since the 1960s. That series segues into another photographic display, in which Americans of all ages and colors are represented in the works of many photographers. Says Harvey: "There are photographs of a Fourth of July barbecue, Lewis Hine’s tenement kids, mid-century debutantes—to remind you that photography occupies a vernacular role, and without people, place doesn’t mean anything."
After entering, those who turn right, toward the National Portrait Gallery, will also find themselves in a familiar, contemporary environment. In two exhibitions, "Americans Now" and "Portraiture Now," visitors "will be able to see portraits of people just like them and go into the historical galleries with that visual information to start a dialogue about historical lives," says Brandon Fortune, the NPG's associate curator of painting and sculpture. "You can't get to Benjamin Franklin without walking past big photographs of teenagers. We're very proud of that." In addition to photography, which the NPG began collecting in 1976, the museum has embraced such unconventional approaches to portraiture as a hologram of President Reagan and a video triptych of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. "These are all delivery systems of personality," says Pachter. "I think of coming to the gallery as an encounter between lives. You're not coming just to look at brushstrokes."
In a kind of operatic overture—in galleries labeled "American Origins"—the NPG sweeps across the centuries from 1600 to 1900 on the first floor, before arriving, on the second, at the exhibition that most pre-renovation visitors will likely remember best: "America's Presidents." In the previous installation, the collection was confined to the Hall of Presidents, but that imposing, stone-columned space now covers only the nation's leaders from Washington to Lincoln, and a gallery about twice its size brings the story up to the present, including an official portrait, William Jefferson Clinton by Nelson Shanks, that was unveiled on April 24.