The Museums We Deserve

Published October 5, 2016

The New Criterion - September 2016 issue

In an era when zillionaires strut their hipness, and boost their investment portfolio, by snapping up the latest follies of Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin, or Maurizio Cattelan, it’s good to be reminded that vast wealth is not always synonymous with bad taste.

Consider the case of Paul Mellon (1907–1999), whose visionary philanthropy is now being commemorated by Washington’s National Gallery.

“In Celebration of Paul Mellon” features eighty-eight dazzling drawings, watercolors, prints, and books (mostly nineteenth- and twentieth-century French, British, and American) in observance of the museum’s seventy-fifth anniversary.1

The National Gallery was founded and largely paid for by Paul’s father, Andrew, a wealthy banker, the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and Secretary of the Treasury in the administrations of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, the three presidents who, it was said, “served under him.”

In 1937, despite the fact that the Roosevelt administration had unsuccessfully prosecuted him for tax evasion, Andrew Mellon gave his important collection of paintings to the people of the United States, along with $10 million to house it in John Russell Pope’s brilliant neo-classical gallery (neither Mellon nor Pope, who died twenty-four hours apart, lived to see it completed).

His great act of democratic beneficence was the spark for many other major donations, all carefully overseen by the three visionary leaders of the museum: the founding director, David Finley, his successor, John Walker III, and his formidable protégé, John Carter Brown.

Paul Mellon, unlike his father, sought no public office, nor did he follow him into the banking trade. But like Andrew, he was a major benefactor. He enriched the Gallery with endowments and works of art (over a thousand of them) and served on its board for many years. In an act of philanthropic symmetry, he paid for an I. M. Pei–designed wing just to the east of the original classical building. But, in what was perhaps an act of filial independence, Paul’s building is modernist, severe, all sharp angles and devoid of ornament, in stark contrast to his father’s classically inspired museum. Unlike the many donors who now give for ego only, the Mellons did not want their names on the buildings of the National Gallery: their gifts were for the nation, not themselves.

A bit of a late bloomer, Paul Mellon was already in his fifties when he started to collect in earnest. He had been interested in English art and literature since his days as a student at Cambridge University, but it was a chance meeting with the art historian Basil Taylor that sent him (aided by Bunny, his second wife) on the path to becoming a distinguished collector, especially of British art. In the 1960s he was the major creative and financial force behind the Yale Center for British Art, the institution that created an American appreciation of the then-neglected works of our mother country’s painters and sculptors.

Paul Mellon had an instinctive sense for quality and very deep pockets. He demanded, and got, superb examples of first-rate works. But, above all, he collected because he loved art. “He never,” he said, “bought a picture as an investment, except as an investment in pleasure.” He modestly called himself “an amateur connoisseur of art,” a statement belied by his brilliant acquisitions, many assembled for his private collection before he gave them to the National Gallery.

Throughout the exhibition, brief wall texts with quotations from Mellon about his collecting link him with visitors, a very nice touch indeed, while the limited number of works allows them to study the choice, small-scale objects (many no larger than a sheet of paper) at leisure.

The curators rightly decided not to hang the works in the usual chronological or thematic order. Mellon bought what he liked. He was not a systematic, scholarly, or dogmatic collector, and the works here are of widely different subjects, dates, and media. Seen side-by-side, the visitors get a vivid sense of the eclectic, highly personal way he collected; this also encourages them to make their own contrasts and comparisons between varying eras, styles, materials, and artists.

Several artists are represented by multiple works. A half-dozen enchanting watercolors by Winslow Homer, especially a shimmering depiction of two boys wading and a luminous, wind-blown scene of berry pickers, are alone worth a visit to the National Gallery. There are multiple sheets by Claude Monet (four) and Pablo Picasso (five), and two glowing watercolors by J. M. W. Turner. The twentieth century is well represented by Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Giorgio Morandi, and Georges Braque, among others.

Mellon said that he bought portraits because he was fascinated by the “sitter’s character, air of intelligence, or hint of humor.” Would “he like her or him?”

This interest in character is evident in the many portraits he acquired. Three graphite sketches by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, notably a self-portrait and drawing of the architect Henri Labrouste, portray their sitters’ pensive faces with an economy and delicacy of touch that astounds. A pencil sketch (strongly influenced by Ingres) of René de Gas by the young Edgar Degas is one of eleven works by him, including depictions of Lydia Cassatt and her artist sister Mary. Mary’s large pastel portrait of a woman in a black hat, a blaze of vivid blue and black, is also here. Self-portraits by Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse further demonstrate Mellon’s unerring and eclectic eye.

To get such prizes, Paul Mellon had to be a strong competitor in the art market, an attribute he also brought to sports, especially to his championship fox hunting.

Several sheets in the show reflect his keen interest in competitive sports. There are boxing scenes by George Bellows and Théodore Géricault, and three bold preparatory drawings (one chalk and two charcoal) of jockeys by Degas. Executed with a sure and fluid touch, they must have appealed to both Mellon’s sporting and aesthetic interests.

Choice, modest, and timely, “In Celebration of Paul Mellon” is a fitting tribute to him, and to the institution he loved: si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

I’d hazard a guess that Mr. Mellon would not be pleased by what’s happened just up the street at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG).

Although the NPG shares the splendid Old Patent Office with the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, it has always existed in the shadow of its bigger sister.

Kim Sajet, who came to the NPG three years ago after a successful tenure at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (despite budgetary woes), is determined to move out of that shadow while casting a klieg light on herself and her institution.

Recently, she told The Washington Post that she “thinks bigger” than “she ever did before” and that “big gesture is important. The vision thing, right?” Sajet said that she’s “not good at safe,” and that she is “very much about experimentation.” “You know,” she asserted, “nothing is a sacred cow. Let’s look at breaking down the hierarchies, experimenting, and piloting things.”

Unfortunately, much of this “piloting” detracts from the museum’s mission, which is to collect, exhibit, and explain, carefully and soberly, portraits of Americans from all eras who have made a lasting and substantial contribution to the nation. Instead, Sajet seems fixated with fashion, pop culture, and gimmicky attention-grabbing, star-studded events intended to attract well-heeled donors and promote the museum as “hip”—a word not usually associated with Washington, D.C.

Part of this campaign is the NPG’s “Portrait of a Nation Award,” whose recipients are represented in the museum’s collection. At a 2015 black-tie dinner, which the Washingtonian called a “high gloss event,” the prizes went to Hank Aaron, Aretha Franklin, Maya Lin, the Medal of Honor winner Kyle Carpenter, and Carolina Herrera, all notable Americans with sterling achievements. Sajet, wearing a borrowed Herrera ball gown, proclaimed that, “in the age of the selfie, we have embraced and changed the meaning of portraiture”—a statement that just might be meaningful to those whose understanding of the ancient art of portraiture extends no further than the tips of their selfie sticks.

Admirably, the event raised over $150 million for the museum, but the fear is that the funds will be used to further the director’s cult of contemporary celebrity, so clearly seen in three NPG events.

“Hollywood and Time: Celebrity Covers” displays “largely recognizable celebrity images” from Tinsel Town culled from the magazine’s famous cover art.2 A “curatorial statement” informs us that the covers were chosen “based in part on the prominence of sitters and artists, on gender, and on identity” (whatever that may mean in this context). Notice: gender, prominence, and “identity,” but not a word about the stars’ lasting contribution to the nation. The statement also apologizes for not showing the black Oscar winners Hattie McDaniel and Sidney Poitier because they “like most Oscar winners never appear inside Time’s red borders.”

The NPG has also launched a new performance art series entitled “Identify.” Sajet has asked the artists, according to The Washington Post, “to examine issues of race and gender as well as their personal and family histories to present a new kind of active portrait through music, movement and monologue.” It’s unclear if selfies will be featured.

The second celebrity jamboree at the NPG was “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze,” on view last spring.3 The trendy title is baffling: what exactly is “Eye Pop” (an ocular disorder?), and how does the “celebrity gaze” (whatever that may mean) differ from the gaze of less famous mortals? But none of this matters because the fifty-three portraits of contemporary luminaries “who have been at the top of their fields” are what the NPG hopes would attract attention to “Eye Pop,” which, it claimed, “allow[ed] us to question celebrity and peel back its layers.”

There are portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Brad Pitt, Eminem, Eva Longoria, Serena Williams, and Kobe Bryant. An entire wall is devoted to a large icon-like painting of the pop singer Katy Perry, herself the garish embodiment of celebrity culture. Most of the wall labels accompanying the portraits are just brief notes in English, and Spanish, on the life and deeds of the sitters. There is little information about the portraitists, and scant discussion of their art.

The third NPG celebrity shindig is a single painting: the British artist Jonathan Yeo’s portrait of Kevin Spacey as the evil President Francis Underwood, the star of “House of Cards,” Netflix’s blockbuster television series.

The over-life-sized image was unveiled in an evening event for an invited audience. Spacey, Yeo, members of the Washington Press Corps, and other notables attended, and Netflix produced a video of the fictional President Underwood’s motorcade arriving at the ceremony. Following the presentation, the audience watched the first episode of the new season of “House of Cards.”

Sajet told the audience:

Now “binge watching” television has put control into the hand of consumers, who can watch their favorite shows at their leisure. Not only does it reflect the impact of popular contemporary culture on America’s story but it also exemplifies the fine art tradition of actors portrayed in their roles.

What exactly that means and what it has to do with the NPG’s mission is uncertain. It is clear, however, that it’s another indication of Sajet’s pursuit of celebrities. And one might, of course, also question the propriety of the NPG’s promotions of Netflix.

The NPG was authorized by Congress to acquire and display portraits of “men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States.”

But evidently the current “mission” of Sajet’s museum, as a wall text proclaims, is “to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development, and culture.”

This shift from the past tense (“have made”) to the present tense (“who shape”) reflects a 2000 decision by the museum to include living Americans in the collection. This was unwise. A century from now, Condoleezza Rice and the founders of Google will probably be seen as shapers of American life, and thus worthy of a place in the national collection of portraits. But many others enshrined by the NPG, such as the snowboarder Shaun White, the skateboarder Tony Hawk, the dancer and performance artist Dana Tai Soon Burgess, Katy Perry, or even Kevin Spacey, may well be ephemeral figures consigned, if at all, to the dusty corners of the American story. Much of what the NPG is now acquiring is current events (much of it politically correct), not history.

“My aspiration,” Sajet has said modestly, “is to turn on its head the traditional notions of portraiture as commemorating the dead, to that of living people recognizing and identifying with the lives of the people they meet through amazing art.”

At an event in Georgetown last year, Sajet called a self-portrait made of grains of rice “a kind of fun house full of ideas about how people see themselves, are seen by others, and remembered.” And, she added, “there’s room almost for everybody.”

It may be a fun house, but it’s not what Congress voted for or what our citizens deserve.

1 “In Celebration of Paul Mellon” opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on May 8 and remains on view through September 18, 2016.

2 “Hollywood and Time: Celebrity Covers” opened at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., on April 1 and remains on view through September 11, 2016.

3 “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze” was on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., from May 22, 2015, through July 10, 2016.

Bruce Cole is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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