White House art suggestions to the Obamas

Isn’t it interesting that life itself has an interesting way of forcing us to sometimes either reversing what we once thought were final positions, and other times life offers us a chance of defending both sides of a position?

Be careful what you opine today, as it may be different tomorrow!

I have been generally against the segregation of artists by race (Black, Caucasian, Asian or Native American) or by ethnicity (Hispanic, Semitic, etc.), and yet sometimes a void or need is so egregious that the solution is very clear and may cross lines that we may have thought as cast in concrete.

When we all discovered a couple of years ago that 66% of all the artwork by black American artists currently in the White House art collection had been acquired by the Bushes, depending on what side of the political aisle you stand, that fact either raised an eyebrow from some right wing nuts or some sort of conspiracy theory from vast left wing nutttery.

But when we also discovered the fact that only three works (out of an estimated 375 pieces) were by black Americans, both sides of the aisle should find that surprising… and maybe in need of attention by the Obamas.

A little recap and an update: In 2007 I reacted in my usual self-righteous, irate manner to having American artist and my former professor Jacob Lawrence described as a great African-American artist, rather than just a great artist. And then the Washington City Paper in the process of policing that whole issue, came up with an interesting fact.
Jacob Lawrence
Jacob Lawrence, pen and ink, circa 1980 by F. Lennox Campello
In an Private Collection

According to the Washington City Paper, Betty Monkman, the curator of the White House, revealed that, “while Lawrence’s painting isn’t the sole piece by a black artist in the executive mansion, it’s close to it — there are only two others.”

That’s now three out of “an estimated 375 total in the White House’s art collection.”

Geez Louise, I mean Betty.

That implies that Simmie Knox’s portrait of President Clinton is not considered part of the White House’s art collection, which doesn’t make sense. Knox is a DC area artist by the way, and a brilliant painter.

So let’s take off the first century and a half of the White House’s art acquisition process. During that time we can safely assume that they probably just focused on American artists from one of the four races, and somewhat let me reverse my stand on segregating artists by race, rather than just artistic merit, and let me take the uncomfortable side of trying to again ask the question, “Why aren’t there more works by black artists in the White House art collection?”

Even if one ignores skin color, and just looks at the art and artistic achievement, there are plenty of great American artists, who happen to be black, whom I think would make a great update to the White House collection.

Some art greats, by artistic default, I would think, would have to be Black, or Asian, or Native American, not just Caucasian artists of all ethnicities - after all, all four races of mankind create art and all four and their many mixtures, live in America.

Back in the 1980’s, Jacob Lawrence was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President George Bush The First. Why did it take 27 years for one of his paintings to become part of the White House’s permanent collection?

The City Paper research identified the other two paintings: “Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City (1885), which hangs in the Green Room, its home since 1996, and an 1892 painting by one “Bannister” (possibly Ed Bannister) acquired in 2006 and which was then undergoing conservation.

So two of the three have been acquired by the Bushes, and before 1996 there wasn’t a single work of art by any black artist in the President’s home, in spite of the fact that artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Martin Puryear, Alma Thomas, and others are all just great American artists, period, and have even broken the National Gallery of Art code, and should all probably have been acquired by the White House years, and years, and years ago.

Makes my head hurt.

And let’s agree, as Jonathan Melber notes in the HuffPost, that the White House’s collection is not exactly, ah… contemporary.

But let’s say that a traditional acquisition focus on painting were to remain, and thus we would immediately unfortunately eliminate a lot of good contemporary choices. After all, the White House is not an art museum, and the case could be made that it sort of “feels” that it should be an art collection where all things somewhat say “America” in a variety of traditional visual ways, and I submit that for that goal, painting is still first among equals. That still leaves Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas and others I am sure.

So if the Obamas were to continue what President Bush started, and expand the White House’s collection to be more representative of American artists and the American people, I would suggest that (in addition to perhaps more Lawrence), Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Martin Puryear, and Alma Thomas would be a good start.

And, if as Malber suggests, the Obamas should expand the White House collection to more than just paintings, then in addition to some Lawrence collages, I would suggest work by other blue chip artists such as Kara Walker, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (who is not only a brilliantly accomplished artist, but also happens to be both Hispanic and Black) and Lorna Simpson.

But I don’t know if the Obamas personally collect art, and even though I am one myself, I don’t really buy the idea of a staff White House art adviser.

If the Obamas are like most people, they probably don’t “really” collect art with a focus or intensity to say, the Podestas in DC or the Rubells in Miami (either one of whom, by the way, would make excellent unpaid volunteer art advisers to the White House, if having an adviser was the choice made to change the visual arts acquisition status quo).

So… since the odds are that they would be beginning collectors, then I would suggest the same thing that I do to all beginning collectors: start looking first at emerging artists, which generally can be acquired for much less money than a well-established artist from the upper crust of the rarified artmosphere. Do this until you establish your tastes, desires and somewhat of a focus, and then, if your financial status allows it, begin expanding into the big museum-level names.

And if the Obamas listen to Malber’s excellent point of looking locally (as Clinton did in selecting Simmie Knox to do his Presidential portrait), then I would add one of the terrific works by Rikk Freeman to the White House.

A huge Freeman painting would do wonders for the White House collection and also do wonders for Freeman. Not only would it add a presence and feel to the collection that is missing right now and which is an integral part of American history, but it would also set a new, fresh change of venue of how artwork has been acquired in the past, and the kind of artists that get acquired.

See Freeman’s works here.

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  1. February 16, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    Heather Said,

    Interesting train of thought. I had never thought about that. I do identify with the need to agree with both sides of the argument on different occasions.

  2. March 18, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

    Dennis Tibane Said,

    I want to draw one oustanding art for President Obama, I was always my dream.

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