Portraits of the founding fathers, Remington bronzes, 19th-century landscapes—the White House art collection has always been dominated by the usual aristocratic suspects. Now President Obama and his wife, Michelle, are looking to shake that up. The first family has been quietly notifying an array of public institutions, dealers and collectors that they are looking to borrow first-rate art of a more recent vintage to display in the White House, with an emphasis on works by black, Hispanic, Asian, and female artists.
Since arriving at the White House, the Obamas have already secured a lively enough variety of works to make any collector, or curator, jealous. On inauguration day, at the behest of the new occupants and their decorator, Michael Smith, the National Gallery of Art furnished the presidential living quarters with a wealth of loans: Jasper John’s 1969 lead relief Numerals, 0 Through 9; Ed Ruscha’s sunrise-red canvas I Think I’ll, 1983; a Susan Rothenberg 1976 painting, Butterfly; a robustly coloured Richard Diebenkorn; two Giorgio Morandis and a Louise Nevelson model. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has also lent the Obamas a 1992 text painting by Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me #2, two works by the late African-American painter Alma Thomas, several Josef Albers “Homage to the Square” paintings (two of which ended up in the White House dining room), a bold Nicolas de Staël abstract, and two Degas bronzes. Apiece by Nigerian-born artist Odili Donald Odita was also loaned, but the Hirshhorn took it back when it proved to be too small.
“I don’t believe there’s been any administration that has been as interested in contemporary art,” said Hirshhorn chief curator Kerry Brougher, who worked with the White House in arranging the loans. “I was extremely impressed when they sent over the list of what they were interested in borrowing, because it showed a wide range of interests and a wide spectrum and understanding of both modern and contemporary art.”
The Obamas’ taste is in stark contrast to the Oval Office’s previous tenant, whose conservative bent was reflected in the 12 George Caitlin frontier paintings that he borrowed from the National Gallery. “I think it’s very heartening,” said Molly Donovan, an assistant curator at that institution who was involved in outfitting the current White House. “It speaks volumes to their interest in the arts that they want to show works by living artists, that they’re engaged with the art of their own time.” She said that the president’s team, which include White House curator William Allman, insisted that all of the works they borrowed come from the museum’s storage—a rule that prevented the loans of one or two works by black artists.
Traditionally the White House collection has been focused on works with a fine patina of age, especially in the residence’s public section that doubles as a history museum. Art that is purchased for the permanent collection, which is funded by a White House Acquisition Trust, has to be at least 25 years old, and the artist must be deceased. Out of the more than 400 pieces in the White House collection, only five are by black artists.
All of which makes the Obamas’ foray into recent work—especially by minority and female artists—a subject of great interest for art-world observers. New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch has said that he would like to place a “super-outstanding Basquiat” in the White House.
Semonti Mustaphi, a spokeswoman for the First Lady’s office, which is handling the art outreach effort, declined to comment on the obvious effect such loans would have on the careers—or market values—of the artists selected. The search for new work is still “very preliminary”, she said.
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