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My Article on the Smithsonian in Today’s WSJ—Part I

As you know, I can’t link to the Wall Street Journal‘s subscribers-only site, but I AM allowed to post the text of my article. I’ll again do it in two parts, so as not to tax the short attention spans of hyperactive blog readers. (It’s on today’s “Leisure & Arts” page, Page D5, for those of you who still turn pages, instead of clicking hyperlinks.)


The recent top-to-bottom reinvention of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery was not a mere renovation, as it’s been called, but a meticulous stripping and rebuilding of the interiors and infrastructure of the Patent Office Building — a 19th-century Greek Revival structure, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 — that has housed both museums since 1968. While the results of the remodeling are impressive, the costs, in terms of time, staff losses and financial outlay, are problematic, especially at a time when the museums’ umbrella organization, the Smithsonian Institution, is seriously strapped for operating funds. The protracted project caused the national capital’s two quintessentially American museums to shut down for more than six years.

No effort or expense has been spared to replicate the original materials and designs of what was the third public building constructed in Washington, after the White House and the Capitol. Originally designed in the 1830s by Robert Mills, the structure was partially rebuilt once before, after a devastating fire in 1877. That construction cost $246,000. This time, the cost was some $266 million. By way of comparison, the construction cost for the last completely new Smithsonian museum erected on the Mall, the less than two-year-old, 250,000-square-foot National Museum of the American Indian, was $199 million.

The rebuilding of the SAAM and NPG was backed by $166 million in federal money. The rest came from private donors, including a $45 million, zero-hour financial dispensation by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, secured a mere nine months before the opening. This timely intervention was repaid by affixing a private name to both federal museums, now jointly called “the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.”

Ironically, Mr. Reynolds, a media mogul who died in 1993, had no connection at all with the project, nor with the museums that now bear his name. The Smithsonian donation was engineered by the foundation’s chairman, Fred W. Smith, Mr. Reynolds’s professional colleague for more than 42 years. In 2001, after learning from a Wall Street Journal article about the possible sale of Gilbert Stuart‘s “Landsdowne” portrait of George Washington, which had been on long-term loan to the NPG, Mr. Smith had arranged for the Reynolds Foundation to donate $30 million to the museum for the purchase, multicity tour and reinstallation of the iconic full-length likeness of the first president.

On Jan. 3, 2000, when the SAAM and NPG closed their doors to the public and opened them to construction workers, the ambitions were relatively modest: to replace deteriorated and outmoded systems of heating, air conditioning, plumbing and wiring, at a cost of about $60 million, and to reopen at least part of the facility to the public within three years.

All that changed, according to Elizabeth Broun, the SAAM’s longtime director, soon after the appointment of Lawrence Small as the Smithsonian’s secretary, its chief administrative post. In early 2000, Ms. Broun recounted, he toured the premises and said: “This is a great landmark building for all America… It should be a dazzling showcase.” The museums soon found themselves engaging an international array of skilled artisans: English craftsmen turned out thousands of handmade encaustic tiles, reproducing the patterns on the floor of the building’s Great Hall. Hungarian workers were hired to perform the delicate task of laying these tiles along the majestic two-block-long corridor.

Windows and skylights were uncovered, and for the replacement of some 588 windows, the museums ordered hand-blown glass from Poland, “to simulate the slight irregularities of old panes,” as described in the “Grand Opening” brochure. The brochure also states that “a new two-acre copper roof was installed, duplicating the 19th-century design and materials as closely as possible.” Additionally, “more than 12,000 square feet of original marble floor pavers were restored in the museum’s hallways.”

In this new, improved art palace, even the plaster is “a masterpiece,” in the words of Ms. Broun. “We had a team of people from Bolivia who oversaw some of the training.”

[If you just can’t stand the suspense of waiting for Part II, invest in a copy of the WSJ. As for me, I’m off to the press preview of MoMA’s latest contemporary-galleries reinstallation!]

an ArtsJournal blog