Two for the Road

Changes mean a bright future for the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery

I have been using my column as I conclude my term as Secretary to reacquaint Smithsonian readers with the Institution's many museums and research centers. Their breadth and quality deserve reiteration as we prepare for our first modern-day capital campaign to raise the private support necessary to ensure continued excellence.

Today the focus is on two museums — the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery — which share the Old Patent Office Building, an important historical landmark near the Mall. The building is scheduled for a massive renovation, beginning in January 2000, and both museums will be sending major exhibitions around the United States while it's closed. In addition, the Old Patent Office Building houses the Archives of American Art with its vast holdings of documentary materials on American art and artists.

The National Museum of American Art (NMAA) contains a broad collection of American painting, sculpture, graphic art, photographs and folk art from the 18th century to the present. It has more than 38,000 works and a major center for scholarly studies. The latter includes such unique resources as the Inventory of American Sculpture, with information on 75,000 indoor and outdoor works.

NMAA's collections have nearly doubled in the past 25 years. Among the major pieces are the approximately 500 Indian paintings of George Catlin, a large group of paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder and extensive collections of the art of the 1930s and of works by African-Americans. NMAA also displays both portions of its collections and many of its exhibitions on-line.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is the only major museum in the Western Hemisphere devoted exclusively to portraiture. Established by Congress in 1962 to collect, exhibit and study portraits of "men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States," the collection highlights Presidents and other Americans prominent in government, science, the military, literature, theater, the arts, sports: people who represent all aspects of life. For me, NPG is principally a museum of biography — a place where American history and culture can be understood through individuals seen amid the context of their times. For example, among recent NPG exhibitions, "Red, Hot & Blue" presented the story of the American musical, with an all-star cast of the singers, actors, dancers, producers and authors who created the hits. Some exhibitions tell the history of one great American life in depth; for example, the current "Picturing Hemingway." Others have explored the lives and work of such portraitists as painter Cecilia Beaux, sculptor Marisol and photographer Annie Liebowitz. Also a resource for scholarly studies, NPG contains the Catalog of American Portraits (photographs and documentation of portraits of noted Americans in public and private collections throughout the country). Both NMAA and NPG produce scholarly publications and maintain extensive educational and outreach services for many different audiences.

These two museums are on the brink of an exciting future. Three major changes now occurring will have profound influences. First, the neighborhood around the Old Patent Office Building is undergoing rapid private redevelopment and is clearly on the way to being a vital urban area. The second change is the renovation of the building itself, which will cost in excess of $60 million (largely federally funded). We will probably be able to add 60,000 square feet of public space by providing space for most staff and services elsewhere. This will enhance exhibition opportunities and provide more space for shops, educational activities and dining facilities. Lastly, that expansion space is now largely ensured by the Smithsonian's acquisition of a building currently under construction. The building is to be owned by the Smithsonian without additional federal funding for acquisition or operations. We must raise $35 million to fund the move from the Old Patent Office Building. I am optimistic, especially given a few large pledges already received from Commissioners of the NMAA. Space in the new building will permit NMAA to establish an American Art Center, to give the public and scholars access to research materials and study collections.

The cooperation of present and future donors can ensure a vibrant future for the activities now occurring in both museums and the Archives.

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