For many Americans, President Barack Obama symbolizes a changing mindset in America. For art lovers, this change can also be applied to the art in the private residence of the most traditionally American house in the nation: the White House.
Compared to other presidents, Obama’s artistic taste reflects a more modern, contemporary approach to fine art. Clinton preferred a frothy portrait of Mamie Eisenhower clad in a pink debutante ballgown, where George Bush fancied the more muscular patriotism of George Caitlin’s “Wild Frontier” series. Obama in turn has made clear that he wishes to add a brighter color pallete to the imperial walls.
The Art Newspaper described the launch of a campaign that will “replace the fustiness of the existing collection with works by ‘more diverse’ artists.” Approaches (discreet and not) have been made to dealers and collectors who represent African American, Hispanic and Asian artists as well as female painters. Of the 400 pieces in the White House’s permanent collection purchased over centuries, only five are by black artists.
Specifically, the President has been drawn to contemporary painters such as Ed Ruscha and Jasper Johns. On inauguration day, the National Gallery for Art provided the presidential living quarters with a plethora of loans, including John’s 1969 lead relief, Numerals, 0 Through 9; and Ruscha’s I think I’ll…
The First Lady’s office, which handles the White House’s art outreach effort, has turned to the Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for loans on paintings by modern artists, including Glenn Ligon & Alma Thomas. Pieces include a 1992 text painting by Ligon, Black Like Me #2 and two works by Thomas: Watusi (Hard Edge) and Sky Light. The Hirschorn’s chief curator, Kerry Brougher, said he was impressed by the diversity on the list of choices the Obamas requested. “I don’t believe there’s been any administration that has been as interested in contemporary art,” he said. “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.” This gesture to remove some of the older artworks is viewed as a deeply symbolic gesture.
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture asserted that the nation’s art world is “abuzz” over the campaign. “Such a gesture from so influential a place has understandably had a catalytic effect, stirring conversation and raising expectations,” she said. “And that’s a good thing.” The approach taken by the President and First Lady “evinced an ability to transform the bully pulpit into a poetic perch from which to suggest new strategies for broadening the conversation about art and culture in this country”.
This is one change we truly can believe in.