The art world is buzzing that the president wants contemporary art in the private residence of The White House. Former museum director David A. Ross on what could (and should) be hanging at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Late in the first Clinton administration, I made my only visit to the White House. A New York art patron who was receiving an award invited me to witness the event. I hardly remember the art on view in the public rooms—when I search my memory, I recall only a sweet portrait of Mamie Eisenhower, in a fluffy pink dress, painted by W.G Williams, who is purported to have been a member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe.
Now, in the first weeks of the Obama administration, the art world is aflame with rumors that the president and the first lady want serious works by living American artists for their private quarters. This is not the art that the thousands of tourists and VIP visitors will see in the public rooms of the White House. So does it matter whether the Obamas turn out to have good taste or a sophisticated take on the art of our times?
To an arts community that has been alternately ignored and reviled by Washington in recent years, it matters enormously, so, like Kremlinologists, it scrutinizes any bit of news. Michelle Obama wears J Crew—there must be a clue there? President Obama is close to Chicago museum heavyweights Penny Pritzker and Lewis Manilow and counts among his early supporters Eli Broad and Agnes Gund, two people with enormous influence in the American art community. Surely the president will take their counsel seriously?
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So far, the only concrete evidence to analyze is that the Obamas have brought in famed Los Angeles interior designer Michael S. Smith to redecorate the private residence. Schooled at the Otis Art Institute in LA and then in London at the V&A, Smith is the decorator of the moment, known for his impeccable taste and his famous clientele (including former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain).
Though Smith is a man with all the necessary art-world connections and a good eye, he has already been in touch with major museum directors across the country, asking them, in confidence, for lists of contemporary works that might be available for long-term loan to the White House. Understandably, the directors are reluctant to speak on or off the record, as nothing is yet settled.
But they all hope that this small, private overture marks the beginning of a productive dialogue with the American arts community, which has spent so long in the wilderness of Washington policy.
Since the culture wars of the 1980s, moderate Democrats have kept their distance from art (especially contemporary art), while Republicans and the religious right have continued to promote the popular misconception that art is nothing but a manifestation of liberal godlessness—easily ignored, and profitably attacked when necessary.
George W. Bush surprised no one when his taste in paintings ran to mid-brow Western scenes of the cowboy sunset school, and no one expected him to stand up for the arts.
That dynamic was evident again last week, when Senate Democrats including Diane Feinstein, Charles Schumer, and Russ Feingoldsupported an amendment introduced by Republican Tom Coburn that prohibited any “museum, theater [or] art center” from receiving funds in the economic-stimulus package. The argument that these would be “non-stimulative” expenditures assumes that “the carpenter who pounds nails framing a set for an opera company is a less-real carpenter than one who pounds nails framing a house," William Ivey, who was the leader of President Obama's transition team on arts-related spending, told the Boston Globe.
The house version of the stimulus package contains a meager $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, which will no doubt become a point of contention in reconciling the House and Senate bills.
In 1998, it was a big deal when Bill and Hillary Clinton not only attended the National Gallery preview of a great Mark Rothko retrospective but even requested a few minutes to walk the galleries alone—explaining that a trip to see Rothkos at Yale was their first date. Hillary also bucked the rule that art in the White House’s permanent collection must be by an artist who has been deceased at least 20 years when she borrowed and hung a Willem de Kooning abstract during the artist’s lifetime.
But Clinton’s support for the arts was largely ceremonial. He did not reverse the Reagan-Bush cuts to the NEA or publicly condemn the fear-mongering and distrust of the visual-art community that had begun during Lynne Cheney’s tenure as head of the National Endowment of the Humanities. Needless to say George W. Bush surprised no one when his taste in paintings ran to mid-brow Western scenes of the cowboy sunset school, and no one expected him to stand up for the arts.
Now the arts community hopes that the private choices the Obamas make for their quarters presage a broader art initiative in the White House.
“I am waiting for the return of a truly refined cosmopolitan sensibility in the White House,” says cultural historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of Harvard’s Department of Afro-American Studies.
“I think it would be symbolically and materially important to have works of art made by living American artist on view in the White House," says Madeleine Grynsztejn, the new director of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
In an email, Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum, went so far as to nominate some artists for eventual White House display. A “Norman Zammitt sunset would be beautiful…Cathie Opie’s series of photographs of American cities would be perfect.”
Obama has yet to appoint his own NEA chief, although the well-respected Chicagoan Michael Dorf is rumored to head the list. What’s most important to the arts community is that, by its actions, the new administration demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which art captures and inspires the American spirit, reflects the American condition, while it provides real employment to hundreds of thousands of Americans.
David Ross has been director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. He is director of Albion New York.