The Obamas have borrowed Ed Ruscha’s ‘I Think I’ll...’ (1983) from the National Gallery.
via Wall Street Journal, MAY 22, 2009:
Barack Obama is taking on health care, financial regulation, torture and environmental policy. He’s also revamping the White House art collection.
The Obamas are sending ripples through the art world as they put the call out to museums, galleries and private collectors that they’d like to borrow modern art by African-American, Asian, Hispanic and female artists for the White House. In a sharp departure from the 19th-century still lifes, pastorals and portraits that dominate the White House’s public rooms, they are choosing bold, abstract art works.
The overhaul is an important event for the art market. The Obamas’ art choices could affect the market values of the works and artists they decide to display. Museums and collectors have been moving quickly to offer up works for inclusion in the iconic space.
Their choices also, inevitably, have political implications, and could serve as a savvy tool to drive the ongoing message of a more inclusive administration. The Clintons received political praise after they selected Simmie Knox, an African-American artist from Alabama, to paint their official portraits. The Bush administration garnered approval for acquiring “The Builders,” a painting by African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, but also some criticism for the picture, which depicts black men doing menial labor.
Last week the first family installed seven works on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in the White House’s private residence, including “Sky Light” and “Watusi (Hard Edge),” a pair of blue and yellow abstracts by lesser-known African-American abstract artist Alma Thomas, acclaimed for her post-war paintings of geometric shapes in cheery colors.
The National Gallery of Art has loaned the family at least five works this year, including “Numerals, 0 through 9,” a lead relief sculpture by Jasper Johns, “Berkeley No. 52,” a splashy large-scale painting by Richard Diebenkorn, and a blood-red Edward Ruscha canvas featuring the words, “I think maybe I’ll…,” fitting for a president known for lengthy bouts of contemplation. The Jasper Johns sculpture was installed in the residence on Inauguration Day, along with modern works by Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson, also on loan from the National Gallery.
Collectors say the art picks by the Obamas will likely affect the artists’ market values—or at least raise their profiles. After George W. Bush displayed El Paso, Texas-born artist Tom Lea’s “Rio Grande,” a photorealistic view of a cactus set against gray clouds, in the Oval Office, the price of the artist’s paintings shot up roughly 300%, says Adair Margo, owner of an El Paso gallery that sells Mr. Lea’s work. (Mr. Lea passed away in 2001, which also boosted the value of his work.)
The Obamas’ interest in modern art began before they moved to Washington. The couple’s Hyde Park home featured modern art and black-and-white photographs, according to several Chicago friends. On one of their first dates, Mr. Obama took Michelle Robinson to the Art Institute of Chicago.
A White House spokeswoman says the Obamas enjoy all types of art but want to “round out the permanent collection” and “give new voices” to modern American artists of all races and backgrounds.
The changes in White House art come as the Obama administration seeks to boost arts funding. Mr. Obama included $50 million in his economic stimulus package for the National Endowment for the Arts and on Monday Mrs. Obama delivered remarks at the reopening of the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Obamas began their art hunt shortly after the November election, says White House curator William Allman. Michael Smith, a Los Angeles-based decorator hired by the Obamas to redo their private quarters, worked with Mr. Allman, White House social secretary Desirée Rogers and others on the Obama transition team to determine which works would make the Obamas feel at home in Washington.
Mr. Smith and Mrs. Obama made a wish list of about 40 artists and asked for potential loans in a letter to the Hirshhorn, according to Kerry Brougher, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator. Mr. Brougher says Mr. Smith insisted any loans be plucked from the museum’s storage collection and not pulled off gallery walls.
“The White House’s permanent collection is a wonderful record of America’s 18th- and 19th-century classical artistic strengths,” Mr. Smith says. “The pieces of art selected for loan act as a bridge between this historic legacy and the diverse voices of artists from the 20th and 21st century.”
Last week the Obamas decided to borrow “Nice,” a 1954 abstract by Russian-born painter Nicolas de Staël containing red, black and moss-green rectangles; a couple of boxy paintings from German-born Josef Albers’s famed “Homage to the Square” series in shades of gold, red and lavender; and “Dancer Putting on Stocking” and “The Bow,” two table-top bronzes by Edgar Degas. The museum also sent over New York artist Glenn Ligon’s “Black Like Me,” a stenciled work about the segregated South, among others that the Obamas are still considering, according to a White House spokeswoman.
The president can hang whatever he wants in the residence and offices, including the Oval Office, but art placed in public rooms, such as the Green Room, must first be approved by the White House curator and the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, an advisory board on which the first lady serves as honorary chair.
Any works intended for the White House permanent collection go through strict and often lengthy vetting before the White House either accepts them as gifts or, on occasion, purchases them using private donations, says Mr. Allman, who has served as chief curator, a permanent White House position, since 2002 and worked in the curator’s office since 1976.
Potential additions to the permanent collection must be at least 25 years old, and the White House does not typically accept pieces by living artists for its collection, because inclusion could impact an artist’s market value. As a result, there aren’t many modern art choices in the collection, Mr. Allman says.
“We’re not a gallery,” Mr. Allman says. “We’re not a museum. People come to the White House once in their lifetime and have a certain perception of what they’re going to see.”
Currently, the roughly 450-piece permanent collection includes five works by black artists: the Clinton portraits by Mr. Knox; “The Builders” by Lawrence ; “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, which hangs in the Green Room and was purchased at Hillary Clinton’s urging in 1995; and “The Farm Landing,” a tranquil landscape painted in 1892 by Rhode Island artist Edward Bannister, purchased with donations in 2006.
The White House may also temporarily cull works from museums, galleries and collectors to display in either the private residence or public rooms. Presidents must return loans at the end of their final term.