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.

When I visited the museum, the exhibition rooms were crowded with packing paraphernalia — rolls of plastic sheeting, packing quilts, dollies, lots of crates — and lots of great art, off their hooks or pedestals. Among the bounty, I noticed an Edward Hopper, Horatio Greenough's bust of Samuel F. B. Morse, a painted mahogany altar by Emanuel Martínez and a giant, luminous Albert Bierstadt landscape that will be traveling with the "Lure of the West" exhibition.

"We built the crate for the Bierstadt 11 years ago," Smallwood said, "but I knew it would be going out again, so I saved the crate. Today it would cost $2,800 to $3,500."

The thing measures about 9 by 13 feet. It's a wall.

These crates are a marvel. The thick wood slabs are reinforced at all their edges and corners, held together with bolts (because screws work loose), sealed and waterproofed with gaskets underneath the lids.

"I like the crates to look like cabinetry," Smallwood explained. "I want them to look like works of art in themselves, so when someone opens the back of the truck he will see these beautiful objects. They're like sculptures."

Each painting or sculpture gets a custom crate specially designed or refitted for it by Smallwood. They can cost $1,000 and up, so many are veterans of past tours. Some paintings can be tray-packed in layers in one box. Big works with elaborate plaster or gilded wood frames usually require a transit frame: they have to be floated in their crate, not touching on any side. Held in place by clips attached to the frame, they are protected against accident by a lining of ester foam, which cushions and also creates a thermal barrier.

One elaborate marble, a William Henry Rinehart sculpture depicting sleeping children, was all but impossible to handle because of its shape and weight, so it travels on its pedestal, on wheels. Smallwood helped design a ramp for its crate, allowing the work to be rolled inside and braced. A faux marble collar hides the wheels when the piece is on the exhibition floor.

Then there's the Benton mural. Thomas Hart Benton's huge canvas Achelous and Hercules, measuring some 5 by 22 feet, was much too big for the freight elevator. It had to be carried out the front door of the museum, down the steps and wheeled around to the loading dock.

And the Hampton Throne. Oh my, remember the Hampton Throne, that marvel of silver and gold foil, old furniture and cardboard: a roomful of 180 liturgical objects combined to create The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. Built by James Hampton, a Washington, D.C. janitor, over a period of 15 years, it was discovered in a rented garage when he died in 1964 and since then has dazzled millions in its chamber at the American Art Museum.

"It goes to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, on loan, but right now it's being brightened up by conservators," Smallwood told me.

We stepped into a room where conservator Helen Ingalls was cleaning the Hampton. Using cotton swabs and deionized water, she gently scrubbed the crinkled foil. Tedious work. Smallwood and I glanced around the room at the multitude of shiny pieces awaiting the bath and then packing. Smallwood shook his head at the enormity of the task.

"Cleaning foil is not easy, and I get a headache just thinking about packing the Hampton," he said.

"It's a nightmare. We have to design a crate that we can float it in somehow without impacting the foil and paper."

It's all worth it, of course. People across the nation will have a chance to see the best of the Smithsonian's great collection of American art firsthand.

The grand plan for this renovation is not only to rearrange the two museums but to divert most of the offices and research facilities to the Smithsonian's newly acquired Victor Building, a block away. Removing the offices will free some 30,000 square feet for exhibition space.

The third floor of the renovated museum building will have an open storage area. There, the public will be able to view works that are not on exhibition but are visible behind glass. It promises to be a great place to browse. A similar one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is very popular.

When the American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery do reopen, "people will say, 'Wow!'" predicted Elizabeth Broun, director of American Art. And echoing past admirers of this masterpiece of classicism, she added: "This building is a noble space. We think it will be Washington's most beautiful public building."

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