Sharing a Masterpiece; 2 Museums Integrate Their Treasures

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Sharing a Masterpiece; 2 Museums Integrate Their Treasures


Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

At a time when museums are competing to estab- lish distinctive identi- ties, the National Por- trait Gallery and Smithsonian Ameri- can Art Museum have done the unthinkable: They have integrated their exhibitions under one roof so visitors can hardly tell the difference between them.

The once competing institutions, which reopen today after a six-year renovation, have taken advantage of the restoration of their shared home, the former U.S. Patent Office Building, to offer a more confluent and complementary presentation of American ideals and identity. In doing so, they have revived a Washington landmark that is an American masterpiece in itself.

Before the ambitious $283-million preservation project, the museums were sequestered on opposite sides of the monumental Patent Office Building, which stretches from F to G Streets and Seventh to Ninth Streets Northwest. The National Portrait Gallery occupied the southern half and the National Museum of American Art, as it was called back then, the north. Each had its own entrance. Inside, offices and partitions blocked windows and narrowed corridors.

Today, the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum lay claim to separate wings but without barriers between the galleries and hallways. From shared lobbies off F and G streets, visitors can traverse the entire length and width of the building through temporary and permanent exhibits belonging to both museums.

"We think it's an advantage that you can to come to one place, which is a museum in itself," says Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, on a tour of the museum earlier this week. "The building is the third great cultural possibility here."

With the spaces of the Patent Office Building now commodious and well-connected, the two museums' collections can be seen more clearly as related to each other. The American Art Museum's sweeping chronology of artistic developments, from Colonial days to the present, provides a broad context against which to view the famous people enshrined in the Portrait Gallery.

"We both offer ways of experiencing America through its art," Mr. Pachter says. "The difference is how we construct that experience. We are a history and biography museum that uses the arts as a way of delivering lives. For them, the art itself is the big story."

Walking through the well-lit galleries, however, it sometimes is hard to tell which exhibit belongs to which museum. Once the province of white men "10 years dead," the Portrait Gallery now traffics in the kind of diverse, contemporary art shown by its neighbor. New paintings of authors Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison, photographs by artists such as William Wegman and pictures of current-day celebrities such as Madonna and Shaquille O'Neal reveal that the museum is no longer just a stodgy repository for presidential likenesses.

"We're a dinner party with history," says Mr. Pachter, standing next to the new portrait of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "The most important thing you can walk away with from seeing our museum is the sense that you've met these extraordinary people."

The larger, more encyclopedic American Art Museum appears to be less changed in its collecting habits, but it has beefed up its holdings of contemporary art. "There used to be a hesitation on our part to collect modern and contemporary art because of the Hirshhorn," Director Elizabeth Broun says. "We felt the two museums shouldn't overlap by collecting in the same area. That changed in the 1990s, when we started acquiring contemporary works in anticipation of the reopening."

The museum also exhibits portraiture by George Catlin, Gilbert Stuart and others that often is more expressive than the stiffs hanging in the smaller Portrait Gallery. Several artists, including John Singleton Copley, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, are represented in both collections. …

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