The Making of a Museum

July 26, 2011

The beautifully conceived Beaux Arts building by architect Jules de Sibour, which now houses the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was once a grand apartment building. The six apartments in the McCormick Apartment Building each had 11,000 square feet of living space, 21 rooms, and six fireplaces. In present day Washington, a 2000 square foot apartment is considered very large, so these apartments were downright palatial in comparison. There were grand salons and servants’ quarters, and the tenants included, at various times, hostess Perle Mesta, Robert Woods Bliss of Dumbarton Oaks ,and Andrew W. Mellon, the multi-millionaire financier and art collector from Pittsburgh. One other inhabitant of the building was the British art collector, Baron Joseph Duveen, who was knighted in Great Britain because of the great many art masterpieces he donated to museums in his home country. His immense drawing rooms were filled with art treasures, and he and Mellon soon became friends. Lord Duveen was also a master salesman, who was able to drive up the prices of his own collections by his persuasive sales techniques. When Lord Duveen visited Mellon’s apartment, he would praise Mellon’s own paintings with great eloquence, and Mellon would say, “Lord Duveen, my pictures never look so good as when you are here.”

When Lord Duveen decided he wanted to sell the art collection to his friend, he gave Mellon the key to his apartment while he took off for a long ocean voyage. Mellon spent many happy hours in his friend’s apartment, and, when Duveen returned, Mellon bought the entire corpus and then set out to find a home for his growing personal collection.

This collection was a part of the cornerstone for the National Museum of Art, which Andrew Mellon gifted to the nation so that its capital city could have a museum to rank with the great galleries of Europe. Mellon chose John Russell Pope to design the neoclassical building, and, as he dedicated more and more pieces of art to the gallery, other collectors and art patrons stepped forward to contribute their collections to the museum-in-progress. This process has continued since the dedication of the building in 1939, right up to the present day. In 1978, the gallery was expanded with the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing, and today the galleries hold a monumental treasure of art works, along with visiting exhibits from all over the world.

Andrew Mellon never lived to see the museum completed. He was diagnosed with cancer when the project began, but he used all of his remaining strength and time to see that construction began. His museum is probably the only one of its prestige and magnitude in the world that is completely free to the public. Kudos to the vision and magnanimity of Andrew W. Mellon, and thanks, too, to his neighbor Lord Duveen.

‘Elvis at 21’ at the National Portrait Gallery

When you’re with Elvis, you start to feel like a rock star.

When the “Elvis at 21, Photography by Alfred Wertheimer” traveling exhibition—an unusual collaboration among the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), the National Portrait Gallery and Georgetown’s Govinda Gallery—opened at the NPG a while back, people involved in the show started putting off R&R vibes.

That seemed pretty true of Wertheimer himself. It’s been 54 years since he spent time with a budding national phenomenon named Elvis Presley, Elvis the pelvis, going to New York for an appearance on the Steve Allen show, to Richmond, Virginia, on a train ride to Memphis and Elvis’ pre-Graceland home.

If there was a star in addition to Elvis on the wall that day, it was probably Wertheimer himself, standing in the spotlight in a pretty cool gray suit, salt and pepper beard and hair, full of stories about what happened in 1956.

Right behind him stood Chris Murray, the founder of the Govinda Gallery, the man who had rediscovered Wertheimer’s cache of 1956 photos and shown them first in a small exhibition at Govinda a number of years ago, then added an expanded show eight years ago. Murray, who always looks like something of a rocker, is probably the king of rock and roll photography exhibitions in the area.

Even museum folks like NPG director Martin Sullivan and the exhibition co-curators Amy Henderson and Warren Perry, an Elvis buff who walked to school in Memphis on Elvis Presley Boulevard, had that Elvis buzz, along with folks with SITES, and the first visitors to the show.

Elvis had a way about him, and a little matter like his early death wouldn’t change that.

“I was lucky,” Wertheimer tells everybody about how he came to take the pictures that caught, in the most natural, raw manner, a down-home former truck driver just about ready to shoot out into the super-firmament, straddling home, the past, family, friends and old girlfriends, the fire already lit under him to propel him away from all that into legend. In these 40-some enlarged photographs, Elvis is caught smelling the jet fuel that was burning in him, and savoring the first taste of what it all might bring, while simultaneously loosening his grip on the ties that bind. He was changing right before their eyes, and in the process he was changing the whole damn country, (and scaring it a little).

“To be honest, I didn’t know who he was,” Wertheimer said. “But I got an inkling, that’s for sure. That was a special time.

It was 1956, almost right in the middle of the fabled fifties of normalcy, Beaver, the Hit Parade, fallout shelters, cars with big fish fins, Davy Crockett, sexual ignorance. We all loved Ike, even if we were Democrats. And Elvis was singing “Hound Dog” and shaking his tail like a demon. He was singing “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, and “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” In February of that year, he had a Number One pop hit which nobody remembers now, the catchy “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.”

He scared people, mostly parents, television censors and people like Steve Allen, who got him to sing with a hound dog on his show.

What Wertheimer catches in these photographs is the beginning of a transformation—a boy singing roots music, still sometimes from a flatbed truck, changing into a star who could move his hips, show a pouty lip, hit the high notes and the low, and make girls scream en masse.

He was completely natural then, a little full of himself, sure of his way with girls, cool with the guys, relaxed. “I had access,” Wertheimer said. “The old fly on the wall thing.”

He must have been the most invisible little fly with a big camera when he caught Elvis with a pretty, blushed but cautious girl in a hallway prior to going on stage to sing. “He was trying to kiss her, you know, and she was doing what girls do, a little yes, a little no,” he said. “I had to shoot from up a little or behind and it was like I wasn’t there.”

It was kind of a seduction, a full-speed courtship, a kinetic moment, forever in the annals now.

Wertheimer had an eye for the periphery, a gift that actually allowed him to catch what was important. There are two shots of a girl who has just gotten an autograph from Elvis in New York; a sweet young girl who looks like she’s just about to faint, explode or burst into tears, or all three at once.

He caught Elvis on the piano in a hall, practicing, working a tune, and it was the kind of casual shot that might not look like anything, but it explains musicians, the secrets they keep. It became the cover for Peter Guarelnik’s classic biography “Last Train from Memphis.”

He also captured the country: Elvis at lunch counters in the south, where segregation ruled. Yet it was Elvis—by being the white kid who could sing so-called race music, mixing it with pop and gospel and country—who made it possible for people like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry to rise further into the daylight, escape the prison of category and burst into rock and roll. If there had been no Elvis, no Chuck and Fats and Little Richard, does anyone really think Bill Haley could have sustained the genre?

“I just followed him around,” Wertheimer said. “I don’t think I knew myself how important he would be. It was a freelance gig for a record company.”

Elvis was on the verge. In the last series of photos, which Wertheimer shot from the train going home to Memphis, Elvis dropped off, running home to his old neighborhood, parents, new swimming pool, running into the fields with only a piece of luggage, waving at the folks in the train.

Looking back, you might be tempted to think he was waving goodbye to his old life. If he was, we didn’t know and he probably didn’t either. [gallery ids="99582,104901,104899" nav="thumbs"]

Chris Murray on Elvis

Chris Murray, director of the Georgetown’s Govinda Gallery and co-curator of the “Elvis at 21” exhibition, now at the National Portrait Gallery, talks about all things Elvis and the Washington art scene.

What was your specific role in the creation of this exhibition?

I have been working since 1995 with Alfred Wertheimer, the photographer who took the remarkable photos of Elvis in 1956 that are featured in “Elvis at 21” at the National Portrait Gallery. I am the co-curator of the exhibition. The Elvis at 21 exhibition is also organized with Govinda Gallery and the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Services. I also edited “Elvis 1956,” the exhibition catalogue.

What were some of the challenges you faced in putting this show together? What was your ultimate goal?

My hope was that the exhibition, through Alfred Wertheimer’s wonderful photographs, would tell the story of a young Elvis on the verge of changing the world. With the great team that we had at S.I.T.E.S. and the National Portrait Gallery that dream was realized.

What are your personal recollections of Elvis from childhood?

I was almost 10 years old when these photographs were taken and I was already a massive fan of Elvis. One of my older brothers, Matthew, had already been playing for me all of Elvis’ Sun Records recordings like “Baby Lets Play House” and “Mystery Train.”

When Wertheimer took these photos, Elvis had just moved to RCA records and I went crazy for “Don’t be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” on the RCA label. I sat with my family and we all watched Elvis’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show together. I was a devoted Elvis fan even as a child. There is a family video of me at summer camp when I was 10 imitating Elvis with a tennis racket as my Martin guitar.

Did you ever meet Elvis?

I never met Elvis in person, but I feel that I have met him through his recordings, Alfred Wertheimer’s photographs and Peter Guralnick’s great biography of Elvis, “Last Train to Memphis.”

What songs of his do you particularly love? Has there been a progression of favorites throughout your life?

Don’t be Cruel is my favorite Elvis song. I prefer Elvis’ recordings from the 50’s–his Sun Studio recordings and early RCA recordings. The same vintage as Wertheimer’s photos. I’ve come to appreciate Elvis’ post-Army music more now, but it’s the 50’s material that defined rock and roll and changed the direction of popular culture.

Of the photographs in the show, which are your personally favorites?

The photos in the show are all my favorites. Every one of them is a gem.

What made Alfred Wertheimer such a great photographer for Elvis at the time? Were they friends?

Wertheimer’s photographs of Elvis are brilliant because of a couple of things; Wertheimer’s approach was ‘fly on the wall’–he just observed Elvis. The work was not ‘for hire.’ He did it becuase he was curious and because, he told me, “Elvis made the girls cry.”

They are also great photos because Elvis “permitted closeness,” according to Wertheimer. Of course, after these photos were taken, Elvis became so famous that no one ever again would have the opportunity to take such natural and intimate and ungarded photographs of him.

It seems to me that Wertheimer’s photographs blur the line between man and myth, humanity and legend. Any thoughts?

When Wertheimer took these photographs, Elvis was not yet famous. There was no myth. He was not yet a legend. One reason Wertheimer’s photographs are a national treasure is because they capture Elvis at the quintessential moment of his musical genius. As we look back at these photos, its easy to think of Elvis the legend, but when these photographs were taken, Elvis was simply a 21 year old singer from Memphis and very much a man, not a myth.

In your opinion, are the photographs in this exhibition capturing the high point of Elvis’ career?

Musically speaking, the high point of Elvis’ carrier was this vintage–the mid to late 50’s.

What do you think of this show being right along side the “Hide/Seek” Exhibition? Is it fitting?

It’s hard for people to imagine today how controversial Elvis was when Wertheimher’s photographs were taken. Elvis was condemned from the pulpit, his records were burned, TV directors wouldn’t show him from the waist down. Mothers–including my own–would shut the TV off when he came on. He was vilified. It’s interesting how history looks back on something that was once controversial, and yet today it is celebrated and iconic. Hide/Seek is and remains a terrific exhibition. One hopes that people will look back at that subject matter and think, as with the Elvis exhibition, what could all this fuss be about?

How are activities as an art dealer? Anything coming up in the future?

I’m delighted the Elvis exhibition is touring and will be going to museums in Richmond, Memphis, and the Museum at the Clinton Presidential Library, among others. You can got to the S.I.T.E.S. site for a tour schedule. Clinton went to Georgetown and loves Elvis. His personal photographer Bob McNeely gave the President an Elvis book on my behalf and I got a very nice letter back from the President. I want to go to the Elvis exhibition when it gets to Little Rock.

We also have a great exhibition coming up at the Govinda in Georgetown starting January 14th featuring legendary British photographer Don McCullin’s photographs of the Beatles. It’s the first time these images will be seen. McCullin is famous for his war photographs.

What are your reflections on John Lennon’s death?

I love John. I organized an exhibition of Bob Gruen’s photographs of John Lennon in Havana, Cuba a few years ago at their national photo gallery, Fototeca de Cuba. The whole world loves John Lennon. The marvelous thing is that so many great photographers took so many remarkable photographs of John that it’s easy to remember his persona and to be reminded of his artistry. And then of course there’s his music that is very much alive. John Lennon is not dead.

What are your reflections on the DC art scene?

We’re lucky to have all the great museums in Washington that are here. It keeps the art scene always vibrant. [gallery ids="99584,104904" nav="thumbs"]

The Making of a Museum: The Birth of the Smithsonian

It is ironic that the bastard son of the Duke of Northumberland left the family name on what was to become the largest museum complex in the world. There is still some mystery as to why James Smithson, a native Englishman who never visited the United States, left his fortune (approximately $510,000 in 1836) to create such an institution in America. It probably had to do with his own origins; he criticized the British aristocratic system and described the British monarchy as a “contemptible encumbrance.”

Smithson went through his early years using his mother’s name, Macie. He distinguished himself in school, and then as a scientist and leading mineralogist of his time. He even discovered a mineral, which later was named “Smithsonite.”

When Smithson inherited a large estate from his father, he began the process of changing his name to Smithson. Upon his death, his will stipulated that if his nephew died with no heirs (which his nephew did), Smithson’s fortune would go “to the United States of America, to found in Washington an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

While the gift was accepted by Congress in 1836, it took them 10 years to decide how to use it.
After much debate, Congress selected a site and an architect for the institution. The National Mall was a swampy mess at the time, dominated by a railroad station and crisscrossed by tracks; but it proved to be an excellent choice in the years to come.

The architect, James Renwick, was a gifted engineer who had never even studied architecture, but was already famous for his design of St. Peter’s Cathedral in New York City. He brought all his brilliance to bear on the creation of the Gothic revival building that quickly became known as “The Castle.” Since Smithson had been a scientist, Congress interpreted his gift as a place for scientific exploration and inquiry. The museum’s first curator was renowned scientist Joseph Henry, who was so devoted to building up the institution that he actually lived in its east wing from 1847 until his death in 1878.

In its early years, the museum amassed a huge collection of American memorabilia and was nicknamed “America’s attic.” But in 1886, a fire swept though the building, destroying the collection.

Fortunately, the building was restored and new collections began. In addition, auxiliary museums sprung up along the Mall to expand on a broader historic, artistic and educational theme. Today, the Smithsonian is made up of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo. Each year, it is visited by 28 million people.

James Smithson, a wise investor who was able to swell his inheritance into a fortune, would no doubt be proud of what he started with his vague but determined bequest to a country he had never once seen.

On the other hand, you could say he got here 75 years after he died. Alexander Graham Bell, a regent of the Smithsonian at the time, went to Genoa, Italy, where Smithson was buried, and had the body exhumed and brought to Washington. James Smithson is now enshrined in a tomb in “The Castle,” where he can forever overlook the incredible legacy that must have outpaced even his greatest dreams.

‘Telling Stories’

Poor Norman Rockwell. The guy can’t get a break.

Every time there’s a big exhibition of his works — as there is now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum — you can bet your mortgage that someone, somewhere in the art world is going to scream bloody murder.

As in: he’s not a real artist, he’s kitschy, his paintings — most of them originally seen as magazine covers — are too corny, too rosy in their vision of America to be true.

You can debate all of these points to a fare-thee-well and inevitably, the debate starts to betray political views right alongside critical views.

Worst of all for his critics, perhaps, is that Rockwell, in his time, and right up to this moment, continues to remain popular.

Check it out: at almost any time during the week, the exhibition “Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg” is thick with people — young, old, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, older, for the most part, and white, for the most part. Tourists, for the most part.

There’s a thin line between populist and popular art, of course, and the geography of that line has so many footprints on it as to make it unidentifiable. Rockwell’s work is and always was squarely aimed at the great American working and middle class. It was meant to reflect an American landscape and people-scape that was easily recognizable.

What galls a lot of critics — even as far back as the 1920s — is that Rockwell’s work, excellent though it may be in brush strokes, draftsmanship and technique, straddles the thin line between illustration and art, per se. In the age of abstraction, Rockwell’s work sins again in that it doesn’t push forward, it cuts no edge, there’s nothing revolutionary in his work in terms of boundaries. And in the age of a rapidly changing America so diverse as to be almost unrecognizable, Rockwell’s people and imagery seem almost like a dream instead of having connection to reality.

And yet, here are the people in those rooms, trying to find themselves and a story. Rockwell lingers, like a hanger-on at a party for which he’s improperly dressed, just beyond the buzz, an elderly uncle with a bow tie.

To some critics, Rockwell’s work suggests an absence, a kind of intolerance that characterizes small towns steeped in sentiment, which, to critics of almost any kind of artistic work, is like garlic for a vampire. That kind of criticism, of course, is rife with intolerance itself.

“Norman Rockwell is an artist and a storyteller who captured universal truths about America that tell us a lot about who we are as a people,” said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. That’s probably not entirely accurate — or, at least, it’s a little more complicated than that. Through his illustrations for Look Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and, much later, his work that embraced the Civil Rights movement, Rockwell engages an ideal wish Americans have for themselves, the wish of the virtuous and bucolic nation where small things are big. Think for a moment about his great Thanksgiving painting — it’s almost THE holiday experience, which no doubt has inspired numerous movies about the holidays from hell as a counterweight. Yet it’s Rockwell’s painting we dream about if we dream.

This exhibition is about Rockwell’s story-telling gifts, and indeed, he had fantasized about wanting to become a director. His story-telling paintings are about what happened before and what happens after: here’s Gary Cooper being made up for a cowboy scene, here’s a sophisticated mom peering into a mirror, her daughter watching her; here’s truck drivers eyeing a blonde with manly admiration; here’s a bulky cop on a soda fountain with counter with a small boy; here’s a little girl on top of the stairs watching a Christmas party; here’s a woman being cajoled and yelled at by her fellow jury members; here’s a baseball rookie arriving at camp.

Here’s a boss, his red-haired secretary, a window-washer. At the exhibition, a mom explained the story to her daughter “He likes her, she likes him, she’s looking at him,” she said. “She’s not paying attention to her work. Maybe she’ll get fired. Maybe she’ll see the window washer outside. Maybe they’ll fall in love, go on a date. Maybe.”

This is what Rockwell does best: invite people into the stories in his paintings, backtrack, fast forward, wonder and speculate. It’s the stuff of the material that Lucas and Spielberg, both movie directors who themselves try not to visit too much the dark side where Darth Vader and post-modernism live.

His covers, illustrations, paintings and works of art may not be everybody’s cup of tea, and the America he portrayed may not include or be everybody’s America. It would indeed be a sad world if it were Rockwell’s world alone. But you can’t help but feel sometimes that we remember the works as real, even if they weren’t. If art is at least in part something that has the power to pull at you and not let go, then that’s art. It cuts through the edge where the heart and memory lies. [gallery ids="99175,103200,103174,103196,103192,103179,103188,103184" nav="thumbs"]