I remember writing a story for Washingtonian magazine in 2008 about the NGA and its (still) desperate need for increased space. At the time, the National Gallery was engaged in a systematic remodeling of its entire complex, starting with the West Building and moving East. At that point the NGA had received $127 million in federal appropriations for the project, but had never issued a single press release acknowledging the scale of the project. Today the federal appropriations — accrued in increments of $16.1 million one year, $17 million the next, and so on — for the renovation of the museum’s John Russell Pope-designed building are up to $161 million — and that doesn’t include an additional $40 million Congress appropriated to the NGA in FY 2010 to repair the damaged facade of the IM Pei-designed East Building (with more expected to follow in FY 2011). There’s been no public acknowledgment of that either. Most museums would beat their chests about that kind of major work. The NGA makes E.F. Hutton look like Kanye West.
That’s why a sentence, tucked at the end of a seemingly benign, standard-issue show description (that the NGA tweeted on Thursday) made my jaw drop. The web page describes a new installation of paintings from the NGA’s collection that is on view in the East Building. Titled “American Painting 1959-2009,” the hang is a modest, quirky hang of work by 29 painters. Six of them are women. The galleries also include top-notch works by African-Americans Barkley Hendricks (whose 1972 Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris is above) and Bob Thompson (as well as a Sam Gilliam). In acknowledgment of this, the NGA’s show description ended with this sentence:
The emphasis on diversity also means the inclusion of many artists who are women or African American, groups often underrepresented on the Gallery’s walls.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the NGA has admitted what’s been apparent since it re-installed its American galleries just in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama: The National Gallery’s presentation of art from certain periods has been an embarrassment to the institution. “American Painting 1959-2009″ was curated by the NGA’s head of modern and contemporary art, Harry Cooper. I asked the NGA if Cooper was the author of the show description and a spokesperson told me that curators “usually” wrote such texts.
As I noted here in 2009 and have repeated since, the National Gallery is nearly the last museum in America to present American art as the near-exclusive domain of white men. (I hedge because the Metropolitan Museum of Art is still in the process of overhauling its American Wing.) Since the re-installation of the NGA’s American galleries in early 2009, I’ve seen only male artists on the walls and only one work by a non-white artist. (When I walked through the American galleries last week, nearly 200 works were on view. As usual, all were by men. The only artwork by someone who was not white is this fantastic early 19th-century painting by Joshua Johnson. It hangs in the museum’s American naive/folk art gallery.) [Image: Joan Mitchell, Land, 1989.]
This is not the first time that the NGA’s modern and contemporary department has cleared its collective throat at the gallery’s American department. In late 2009 the NGA acquired Byron Kim’s painting installation Synecdoche and promptly installed it in a prominent place in the East Building. In discussing the acquisition here and here, I argued that while Synecdoche is neither a great nor a major work of art, that it engages a major American philosophical debate: the question of multiculturalism in America and thus was an important acquisition for the institution. Writing just after Synecdoche was first installed at the NGA, I said that its purchase by the gallery “can be read as one of the museum’s curatorial departments (modern and contemporary) clearing its throat in the direction of another (American).”
Cooper’s none-too-subtle dig at his own institution — read: its Americanists –can be interpreted at the NGA department most engaged with the present showing one of the ways in which modernists and, er, contemporary-ists can lead within their institutions. Who better to drag a museum into the present — especially when parts of that museum seem to be kicking-and-screaming about it — than the department most engaged with the now? Good on them.
I’ll feature more discussion of the installation itself tomorrow.