On Inauguration Day, four months ago, I talked about the dream I had for what our new president could accomplish if he decided to become a champion of art. I imagined Barack taking Michelle and their adorable girls on a stroll through the National Gallery, and I fantasized about the president deciding to bring contemporary artworks into the White House – not only into the living quarters, but the Oval Office as well. What a great chance it would be to breathe new energy into the historic rooms, which have gotten a bit stale and could use a break from traditional images of cowboys roaming the Wild West.
So, imagine my surprise and delight when I read the recent Wall Street Journal article, "Changing the Art on the White House Walls." Let me quote: 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.
Reading that, I thought for a second that someone in Obama's inner circle might actually be listening to Art Talk on KCRW, but then it occurred to me that having modern and contemporary art in the White House was simply a smart idea whose time had come. Now we learn that last week the first family borrowed from the Hirshhorn Museum seven artworks to be installed in their private residence, including two cheerful abstract paintings by Alma Thomas, an African-American artist. In addition to that, five works were loaned from the National Gallery, including a lead relief by Jasper Johns, paintings by Richard Diebenkorn and Ed Ruscha, and a sculpture by Louise Nevelson.
Needless to say, these choices are rather daring, considering the conservative aesthetic that has dominated the White House for so long. There are roughly 450 artworks in its permanent collection, and any new acquisition must go through a lengthy vetting process. However, the rules for borrowing works are less stringent, and the president can choose more or less whatever he wants for the living quarters and even the Oval Office, while art placed in major public rooms must first be approved by the White House curator and a special White House Preservation Committee.
So if you're lucky to be a guest of the president sometime during the next four, or maybe even eight years, you can enjoy a bold abstract canvas by the Russian-born Nicolas de Staël and a somber geometric composition by German-born Josef Albers. And how about the small bronze sculpture by Degas of a nude woman putting on stockings – another loan from the Hirshhorn Museum? I wonder where this one will be displayed. Can you imagine the lovely uproar if this French work replaces Remington's bronze cowboy, "Bronco Buster," which has been part of the Oval Office decor for decades?
Actually, according the Wall Street Journal report, President Obama already "caused a stir when he removed a bronze bust of Winston Churchill, loaned by the British Embassy, from the Oval Office and replaced it with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. by African-American sculptor Charles Alston, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery." And in a move that is sure to make other American museums jealous, the Art Institute of Chicago plans to send from its collection to Washington ten works for the first family to choose from. I wonder if Sasha and Malia will be allowed to cast their vote in this matter. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in this White House...
Banner image: (L) Frederic Remington’s bronze sculpture, The Bronco Buster, 1903; (C) detail of I Think I’ll... by Ed Ruscha; (R) Dancer Putting on Stocking, Edgar Degas