Museums Are Our Responsibility: Visual Arts Preview


One of our new president’s campaign promises was to eliminate government waste, pledging to cut all unnecessary federal spending. This includes line items like federally funded research and development centers, government-assisted health and human service facilities, environmental regulatory agencies and public education.

It should come as no surprise that one of the budget lines on the chopping block is the National Endowment for the Arts, which gives grants to arts institutions around the country. Amid this new administration’s exasperating victory lap of blunders, lies, obvious incompetence, despotic threats and violations against minorities, immigrants, women, ecology and reality, it’s hard to know where to focus your indignation.

So allow me to alleviate some of your stress: do not worry about the elimination of the NEA.

This is not because I believe that the arts should weather the storm while we fight for those more critically at risk. The reason is simply that art does not need the NEA to survive. Museums, theaters and other arts institutions will endure this moment.

It is an important distinction that NEA grants largely benefit arts institutions, which frankly benefit a disproportionately small number of artists. This funding is beneficial to the development of art and cultural programs, but not once have I ever heard an artist express concern over the elimination of government arts spending.

There is great value in creating public arts projects around the country, particularly in areas that don’t have dozens of museums and theaters in their backyard. The NEA also sponsors art programs for children in low-income communities, art therapy for veterans and a number of small but significant services aimed at bringing more beauty and value to peoples’ lives.

However, art in America has always been a dominantly free-market enterprise, funded by the wealthy because it overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy. The vast majority of all artwork in the National Gallery and the Smithsonian museums, our national bastions of art and culture, originated as private collections and were bestowed as donations to their respective institutions.

For as much public outreach as organizations like the NEA offer, it is at donor galas and exhibition openings that their name is most prevalent, usually in conjunction with private sponsors.

As long as we have a coherent society with food, functional plumbing and electricity (all miracles), artists will keep making art and looking for places to show it. Artists, museums and cultural institutions face far more serious threats from this new administration — by way of its stoking of cultural discrimination and popularizing contempt for creative and scientific enterprises — than the proposed elimination of the NEA and NEH. Ignorance and intolerance are the real danger, not federal budget cuts.

Museums are important because they give us access to great art. I believe that is inherently valuable and a position that should not need to be decorated, defended or explained. I am aware that many of these institutions are enormous beneficiaries of NEA sponsorship, but their vitality and relevance has always been the responsibility of private citizens, through our support and involvement.

The president does not have the power to shut down museums. He can hinder their efforts, but it is on us to care, to defend their value. If you are reading this, you probably don’t control the federal budget, but you do control what you honor and support.

Honor art. Support museums. They are more than couriers of history and extravagant objects — they are evolving centers of community, public discourse and empathy. Museums work to instill meaning and relevance in their assets and exhibitions, to feature work of a continually diversifying world of artists and to connect with an ever-broadening audience.

Washington museums do that magnificently, and it is our responsibility as privileged and culturally conscious citizens to support them as we always have.

The spring art season is almost here, and the upcoming exhibitions featured in this issue offer a remarkably diverse range of subjects, themes, ideas and interests. See them all. Choose to honor art. Choose to support museums.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

‘Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara’

Opened Feb. 17

While visiting a remote area along the U.S. border with Mexico, Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara found the remains of ancient pottery alongside plastic bottles discarded by migrants. Intrigued by this juxtaposition, she began to reconceptualize the plastic bottle, using a millennia-old process to make pottery resembling this ubiquitous icon of modern life. Porter Lara’s art blurs the line between what we see as natural and what we see as manufactured, illuminating the bottle as an unlikely precious object — a vessel that carries life-sustaining water.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

‘Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors’

Opens Feb. 23

“Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” is a celebration of the legendary Japanese artist’s 65-year career and a sensory journey through her mind and legacy. Visitors will have the unprecedented opportunity to discover six of Kusama’s captivating “Infinity Mirror Rooms” alongside other key works. From her radical performances in the 1960s, when she staged underground polka-dot “Happenings” on the streets of New York, to her wild new pumpkin sculptures, this exhibition will showcase Kusama’s full range of talent for the first time in Washington, D.C.

National Gallery of Art

‘The Urban Scene: 1920–1950’

Opens Feb. 26

American artists of the early 20th century sought to interpret the beauty, power and anxiety of the modern age in diverse ways. Through depictions of bustling city crowds and breathtaking metropolitan vistas, the 25 black-and-white prints in “The Urban Scene: 1920–1950” explore the spectacle of urban modernity. The exhibition includes prints by artists such as Louis Lozowick and Reginald Marsh, as well as by lesser-known artists including Mabel Dwight, Gerald Geerlings, Victoria Hutson Huntley, Martin Lewis and Stow Wengenroth.

National Gallery of Art

‘In the Tower: Theaster Gates’

Opens March 5

Over the past decade, Theaster Gates has explored the built environment and the power of art and culture to transform experience. For the second exhibition in the reopened East Building Tower 3 galleries at the National Gallery of Art, Gates will present a new body of work, “The Minor Arts,” featuring several pieces created for the space. The installation will examine how discarded and ordinary objects, including the floor of a Chicago high school gym and the archives of Ebony magazine, acquire value through the stories we tell.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

‘June Schwarcz: Invention and Variation’

Opens March 10

June Schwarcz, who died in 2015 at age 97, is considered one of the most innovative enamel artists of the late 20th century. Over more than 60 years, Schwarcz created inventive forms in metal that set new standards for the field. Her extensive body of work centered around ancient vessel-making traditions, which defied convention because, as she wryly noted, “They simply don’t hold water.” All unique, her vessels — more than 50 of which are on view — show the influence of sources such as Japanese ceramics and textiles, Scandinavian design and the California Arts and Crafts movement.

The Kreeger Museum

‘Re-Vision’

Opens March 10

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Kreeger Museum, designed by Philip Johnson in 1964. On this occasion, the museum has asked two prominent Washington architects, Michael E. Hickok and Yolanda Cole, to conceive and curate a special celebratory exhibition. Going beyond archival material, the show offers a vision of the Kreeger through a fresh lens: some of the region’s most prominent photographers. Each will create images that challenge us to look at the building from his or her point of view. In this way, Johnson’s design becomes the inspiration for an exhibition rather than its subject.

The Phillips Collection

‘George Condo: The Way I Think’

Opens March 11

Born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1957, painter George Condo is best known for his rich pictorial inventions, existential humor and imaginative portraits, which incorporate a hybridization of art-historical influences, such as Goya, Velázquez, Manet and Picasso. This exhibition of roughly 200 drawings and sketches will offer unprecedented insight into the mind and process of Condo, who has long challenged painting’s primacy over drawing. It is in his drawings that Condo’s process of “painting memory” (the title of a course he taught at Harvard) — in which his mind’s eye takes a “snapshot” of his imaginary subjects, and the resulting figurative compositions become infested with abstraction — reveals itself.

National Building Museum
‘Architecture of an Asylum: St. Elizabeths 1852–2017’
Opens March 25

For the past decade, St. Elizabeths — a sprawling campus in Anacostia that opened in 1855 as the Government Hospital for the Insane — was largely closed to the public. But recent efforts to redevelop this National Historic Landmark have created new opportunities to access its rich legacy, as well as its potential to help revitalize one of the city’s most underserved wards. This multidisciplinary exhibition tells the story of St. Elizabeths, reflecting our nation’s evolving ideas of how to care for the mentally ill and documenting the current initiative to reconfigure the historic campus as a federal workplace and a mixed-use urban development.

National Portrait Gallery

‘The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now’

Opens April 7

Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been engaged in multiple wars, varying in intensity and consequence. After 15 years, warfare has become normalized into our cultural landscape — ongoing, yet out of sight. “The Face of Battle” explores the human costs of these wars through portraiture, reorienting our view of war from questions of strategy and tactics to its personal toll. Featuring 56 works by six artists — including Ashley Gilbertson, Tim Hetherington and Vincent Valdez — this poignant exhibition puts a face on recent wars through work that pictures the experience of ordinary soldiers.

Freer and Sackler Galleries

‘Inventing Utamaro: A Japanese Masterpiece Rediscovered’

Opens April 8

In 2014, the Okada Museum of Art in Hakone, Japan, revealed that it had discovered a painting by legendary artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) that had been missing for nearly 70 years. Titled “Snow at Fukagawa,” the immense work is one of three paintings by Utamaro that idealize famous pleasure districts in Edo (now Tokyo). The three paintings reached the Paris art market in the late 1880s and were quickly dispersed. Now, for the first time in nearly 140 years, the trio will be reunited in the exhibition “Inventing Utamaro” at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the only location to show all three original works.

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