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Trove of American Art in Newly Renovated Smithsonian Building


The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, two museums in one historic building, re-opened last summer after a painstaking six-and-a-half-year renovation. Long a favorite of Washington museumgoers, the collection now gleams in its pristine new settings inside the restored Old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C.

"We are the only place where you can go to see every facet, style and idiom in American art, from the Colonial era to the present day,” says Eleanor Jones Harvey, curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We have put together a collection that is deeper and broader than almost any other American art collection, anywhere in the world."

The Old Patent Office Building that houses the museum is the third oldest in Washington, constructed around the same time as the U.S. Capitol. President Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball, in 1865, in its sweeping center gallery. The building was also used during the Civil War as a temporary barracks and hospital for wounded soldiers –- and as a morgue.

After decades of use as a government office building, the Smithsonian annexed the building in 1968 to house the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. But for the last six and a half years, the building has been closed for a renovation -- one aimed at matching the art to its surroundings.

"So, we’re in Lincoln Gallery,” said Eleanor Jones Harvey, during a recent interview in the restored museums. “This is the space with the tallest ceilings, the broadest vistas, the most elegant vista that you have in the entire building. It seemed perfectly suited for large-scale contemporary works, as a way of allowing them to soar, and allow you to be transported along with them. On the first floor, where our galleries have lower ceilings and groin vaults, it was brilliantly suited to folk art and to traveling exhibitions. And the second floor encapsulates the character of the 19th century, which is where those collections are now housed."

One new feature is a visible conservation center, where visitors can watch conservators cleaning and repairing works of art. Another is a system for storing art in glass-fronted cases, opening up to view nearly 3400 works of art that would otherwise be in closed storage.

A highlight of the collection, says Harvey, is “Electronic Superhighway," by the late South Korean-born video artist Nam June Paik. It uses TV screens and video loops to create an endlessly changing map of the United States more than eight meters long and nearly six meters tall. Harvey calls it Paik's "video diary of the 50 states of America.”

"What he did was take his scrapbook impressions of each of the 50 states,” she says, “and wound them into 50 different 20-minute loops, each one devoted to an individual state in America. Each state is outlined in strip neon, and the longer you look, the funnier, the more poignant, the more outrageous, and the more thought-provoking the piece becomes."

Art of the American west at the museum includes many portraits of Native Americans by the 19th century painter George Catlin. Eleanor Jones Harvey also points to the collection’s landscape paintings of the new American territories, particularly "Sierra Nevada," by another 19th century painter, Albert Bierstadt.

"He probably did more to introduce east coast Americans to the topography of the western third of the country than any other artist,” she says. “And when you stand in front of this piece, bear in mind your ancestors paid what is now $5 to stand in front of this painting and marvel at it. It's like an Imax theater experience for the 19th century."

Harvey is equally proud of the museum's folk art collection, which includes James Hampton's “Throne of the Third Millennium.” Hampton was a government janitor who labored 14 years, after hours, creating the massive piece, which he meant to become his church. It is an elaborate, almost room-sized altar made of silver, though the silver is aluminum foil. Hampton worked in a rented garage only blocks from the museum. The piece was discovered there after his death in 1964, still unfinished.

"He built a shrine to a personal religious system, Old and New Testament, out of spent light bulbs, tinfoil, abandoned furniture, and cardboard,” Harvey says. “He wrote gospels in a code we haven't broken yet, and it was clearly a very personal and spiritual labor of love.”

The other wing of the building, the National Portrait Gallery, draws many visitors for its paintings of American presidents, from George Washington to more recent incumbents, including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, and the first president George Bush. Portraits of ordinary people are also included -- for example, those from a 2006 national competition, in which artists were asked to portray someone close to them. Wisconsin painter David Lenz's portrait of his mentally retarded son, and Yuqi Wang's portrait of himself and his wife overlooking the rooftops of Brooklyn, New York, took the first and second prizes in a field of 51 finalists from around the United States.