Here’s the second part of my article, appearing on the “Leisure & Arts” page in today’s Wall Street Journal. (Here’s Part I.)
The most grandiose extravagance [in the renovation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery], marred by some of the biggest cost overruns and delays, is still a work-in-progress: Now estimated to cost some $62 million, all privately funded, is the new Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, an enclosed plaza with an undulating glass canopy designed by British architect Norman Foster. The new gala-friendly indoor atrium was supposed to open simultaneously with the museums, but instead is just a jumble of scaffolding.
Now expected to be completed in late 2007, its construction was set back by a long delay in getting necessary government approvals. This rescheduling also affected other aspects of the project, including roof construction, costing some 18 months and an additional $8 million to $10 million in construction costs, according to Ms. Broun. Much of the added expense came from the rise in the price of steel during the delay and from the cost of keeping large cranes on site, but idle, until the project was finally allowed to proceed.
All this was happening, she noted, at a time when “there were fairly serious cuts across all the Smithsonian staff. We’ve maintained strong support for the building and for increased security needs, especially in the wake of 9/11. But the tradeoff has been very large cuts across the programmatic side of the institution… We’ve lost over 20% of the federal support that we enjoyed when we closed.”
While the structure was shored up, the SAAM’s professional core was shattered: Half of its staff at the time of its closure has permanently left the building. “I think that for some people,” Ms. Broun observed, “it was a long time to be without a museum.” The only upside of this exodus was that it allowed the museum to make budget-dictated staff cuts through attrition, rather than layoffs.
Ms. Broun admits that she found the delays exasperating and says that the defection of staff caused her “a period of grieving.” But she now consoles herself with the belief that “the project is better because we took more time to get it right.” She is justifiably proud of the new Lunder Conservation Center, where visitors can watch conservators at work behind glass walls, and the new Luce Foundation Center for American Art, which provides open storage for about 3,300 works that would otherwise be unseen by the public. But the display capacity of the SAAM’s permanent-collection galleries — some 940 objects — is little changed: Although most office areas have now been converted to gallery space, wall space in other areas has been reduced by uncovering windows and removing interior walls. “We are showing many more sculptures but probably the same number of paintings as before,” Ms. Broun said.
Both museums have expanded their displays devoted to the pre-Colonial era — the first chapter of their roughly chronological narratives. The SAAM shows more decorative arts than before; the NPG has dropped its rule that the personages on its walls had to be dead 10 years before they could be admitted to the pantheon. The SAAM’s folk art collection and the NPG’s “America’s Presidents” gallery retain their special popular appeal. But despite their best efforts to coexist, the two museums remain uneasy bedfellows, due to conflicting curatorial standards: The SAAM leans toward works of artistic merit that help to illuminate the American experience. The NPG’s primary criterion for works on display is the importance of the sitter, not the quality of the art.
“I personally don’t do brushstrokes,” declared Marc Pachter, a cultural historian who assumed the directorship of the NPG in July 2000, after it had already closed to the public.
Nevertheless, the Portrait Gallery has its fair share of great art, and the American Art Museum its fair share of great portraits. Together they provide their tourist-heavy audiences with a sometimes disparate, often complementary historical sweep. It’s good to welcome America’s art back on display in America’s capital.