WASHINGTON — In a city where museums are as much a part of the landscape as national landmarks, the reopened National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum stand out.
After six years of renovations, the museums, which share space in what was the original U.S. Patent Office Building, welcomed back art aficionados and history buffs this month. The $283 million overhaul has made it a breeze for visitors to tour all three floors of the rectangular building — ducking in and out of vividly colored galleries filled with images of American icons and artwork from the past 250 years.
Walt Whitman described the structure as the “noblest of Washington buildings” and the Great Hall was grand enough for an inaugural ball of Abraham Lincoln. Along with the restored marble hallways, stained glass windows and the double staircase, there are enormous skylights and round domelike windows that shed more light on the art.
The museums’ no admission fee policy means visitors don’t have the hassle of standing in line when they enter, and many head straight for Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington in the gallery’s “America’s Presidents” section, the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
Just 50 or so paces away, there are scores of more contemporary pieces. Nina Levy’s sculpture of a gigantic baby’s head is suspended from the ceiling. The unexpected — the juxtaposition of Everett Raymond Kinstler’s oversized canvas of Tom Wolfe opposite Robert McCurdy’s take on Toni Morrison — is an essential element of the layout.
“There are so many different components,” said Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “We didn’t know how they would all play together and what the collective impact would be. But visitors — many of whom are not necessarily regular museum-goers — are having their senses gratified on so many different levels. I always wondered if the art would hold up against the building, especially since we use different strategies for installation. People are amazingly unintimidated.”
There are plenty of familiar faces on the walls, including Martin Luther King Jr., Mark Twain, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Rosa Parks, Gertrude Stein, Ray Charles, Henry Ford, Fred Astaire, Jackson Pollack, Ernest Hemingway, Christopher Reeve, Phillip Glass, William Faulkner, Lou Reed and Hillary Clinton.
Whether in the “American Now” gallery or the Smithsonian’s “Civil War” exhibit, visitors have a chance to test their knowledge — if they don’t read the identifying cards — about those who have shaped our culture as well as pick up a bit of trivia. How else to learn Benjamin Harrison was known as “The Iceberg,” that Lyndon B. Johnson considered his portrait to be “the ugliest thing he’d ever seen” and that Dwight D. Eisenhower took up painting as a hobby when his portrait was done.
There are also a few nods to the fashion industry: a photo of Calvin Klein seated on a table in his showroom and a painting of garment workers’ union leader David Dubinsky.
Isaac Mizrahi designed the dark denim aprons worn by staffers at the Lunder Conservation Center there, which gives museum-goers a behind-the-scenes look at art preservation. The items are also available for $85 in the museum store. Target, sponsored the July 1 opening day festivities for the museums, which are known collectively as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
The portrait gallery is on the building’s east side, and the Smithsonian art museum is on the west side, but the two seem to meld together. More than one million people are expected to visit the museums this year — double the attendance figures in 1999, the most recent time the museum was open for a 12-month stretch. The museums’ collections are complementary and provide a 250-year overview of the American experience, said Smithsonian director Elizabeth Broun.
Thomas Hart Benton’s 22-foot mural “Achelous and Hercules”; John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler; William H. Johnson’s “I Baptize Thee,” and George Catlin’s “Indian Gallery” can all be found at the Smithsonian. And Duane Hanson’s sculpture of a woman eating at a lunch table “stops people in their tracks,” Broun said.
Quotations from Georgia O’Keefe, Alexis de Tocqueville, Paul Strand and scores more printed on the gallery walls also make some pause. Perhaps it is Willa Cather’s words from “O Pioneers” that best capture the museum’s essence: “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”