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Art's Moving Experience

Before works go on tour during a three-year museum renovation, there's lots of sprucing up and packing

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They are galleries of ghosts. The walls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery are bare except for a few picture hooks; sculptures are gone from their places; enormous crates and empty frames wait in exhibition halls.

For me the most dramatic sign that the double museum in the wonderful Old Patent Office Building, whose classic facades resemble the Parthenon, has closed for a three-year renovation is in the Lincoln Gallery on the third floor.

As long as I have known it, this block-long room with its dozen or more marble columns where Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held, has been divided into cubicles to display artworks. But now the partitions have come down and the large windows are uncovered, as are the four skylights that had been blocked off. The enormous space is flooded with daylight, and the poet's dream of marble halls has come to life. It was this kind of grandeur that moved 20th-century architect Philip Johnson to call the edifice "the greatest building in the world."

During the Civil War, when the building was the Patent Office, it also served as a makeshift Army hospital. "That noblest of Washington buildings," observed Walt Whitman, "is crowded with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers." A few years later, as the poet attended Lincoln's inaugural party there, the image of suffering stayed with him: "Tonight, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins' sweetness, the polka and the waltz; but then, the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying...."

As I walked through the exhibition halls stripped of their finery, I realized that for a closed museum this place certainly bustles.

Something had to be done about the tens of thousands of paintings, sculptures, murals, photographs and drawings, and rather than store them all — a solution, I suppose, but a boring one — the museum directors have decided to send a prime selection on tour.

At least 500 works from the American Art Museum will circulate among some 70 other museums. Called "Treasures to Go," the traveling works are organized into eight thematic exhibitions that highlight American culture, such as "Lure of the West," "The Gilded Age" and "Contemporary Folk Art." Another 500 works are going on long-term loan to various museums. The National Portrait Gallery will also launch four traveling exhibitions and lend about 1,000 pieces to small institutions around the country.

"This is the perfect opportunity to introduce the public to American art," said assistant registrar Michael Smallwood, who is in charge of packing and crating the works at the American Art Museum. Besides, many of the pieces are "just too huge to store." With so many artworks on the move, Smallwood and other museum staff have their hands full.

The art is being spruced up before hitting the road. Alexander Calder's Nenuphar, a graceful, swanlike sculpture that stood in the museums' garden, was in six pieces on the floor of the Lincoln Gallery. Conservators were removing rust and bird droppings and touching up the paint.

One of American Art's most popular pieces, Vaquero, Luis Jiménez's 16-foot tall, flamboyant fiberglass sculpture of a cowboy clinging to a bucking bronco, which stands outside the museum entrance, will have to be moved to protect it from construction dings. Fortunately, it can be broken down into two pieces, Smallwood says, and the artist himself promises to do the conservation.

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