Friday, October 24, 2008

Art and the Bridge to Nowhere

As museum directors are bracing for the effects of financial meltdown, I found myself rambling through the galleries in The National Gallery of Art, the Freer Museum and the Sackler Museum. Insulated from the news of stock price declines, the museums served as a sanctuary from the economic and political storms raging in the United States. Fortunately, all these museums remain free of entry charges so even the most financially impoverished families can be exposed to great works of art in Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery, of Art comprises two buildings, linked by an underground passage: the West Building and the East Building, The West Building has an extensive collection of paintings and sculptures by European masters from the medieval period through the late 19th century, as well as pre-20th century works by American artists. Highlights of the collection include many paintings by Titian , Raphael. Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Durer,, J. M.W. Turner. Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Degas, Goya, Ingres, Delacroix, Seurat, Cézanne, Gauguin, William Merritt Chase, and the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the western hemisphere. The East Building focuses on modern and contemporary art, with a collection including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, René Magritte, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder.

On October 15th, a special exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Art. Oceans, Rivers, and Skies: Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz will be on show until March 15, 2009. As a long-time admirer of all three of these legendary American photographers I looked forward to seeing the exhibition that features 21 works and was organized by Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art. In particular, my sensibilities were piqued for Stieglitz's series Music: A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, which was last seen in its entirety in 1923. Alas, the exhibition was a major disappointment and I even heard another viewer proclaim, “Obviously there was a good reason these photos haven’t been exhibited together since 1923.

Considering the economic demands upon museums, I debated whether or not to publicly criticize the showing. However, during this economic crisis it behooves directors and curators to provide the public with exhibitions worthy of attendance---and not just piece together shows that may attract numbers based upon the “name” of artists.

An antidote to the disappointment found in Oceans, Rivers, and Skies is a permanent installation residing immediately across the hall: The Armand Hammer Collection. Amongst the treasures found in this selection of drawings and paintings is a watercolor by Andrew Wyeth. It alone made the trek to the area of the West Wing that houses the photo exhibition worthwhile.

Not all exhibitions presently on view in the Smithsonian affiliate network were substandard. In fact, through January 25, 2009 one can view the breathtaking and inspiring exhibition Seascapes : Tryon and Sugimoto at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The exhibition consists of series of 22 pastels of the Maine coast by the late American landscape painter Dwight Tryon, juxtaposed with six black-and-white photographs of the sea by contemporary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto from his ongoing series "Seascapes." As the museum’s marketing material states, “ The formal resonances between these two series will encourage quiet contemplation.” A small selection of the works can be viewed at

Another surprise is housed within The Freer Gallery of Art. When the gallery opened to the public in 1923, it was the first Smithsonian museum for fine arts. The gallery houses a world-renowned collection of art from Asia However, it is the American collection of works created between 1855–1919 that captured my breath. Charles Lang Freer, founder of the museum was a Detroit businessman who began collecting American art in the 1880s. Freer’s collection was eventually gifted to the American people and includes an unparalleled collection of over 1,300 works by Whistler as well as numerous masterpieces by Dwight William Tryon , Abbott Handerson Thayer, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, and John Twachtman. In this quiet and unpretentious museum, one is reminded of Whistler’s comment that a work of art "should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom—with no reason to explain its presence—no mission to fulfill—a joy to the artist—a delusion to the philanthropist—a puzzle to the botanist—an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man."

While I was exploring the artistic wonders in the Smithsonian museums, I reflected on the recent report issued by the bipartisan Americans for the Arts Action Fund: the Congressional Arts Report Card, covering the 110th Congress (2007-2009). The document containing detailed scores of every Member of Congress based on his or her voting record on arts issues can be found online at

The 2008 Congressional Arts Report Card reveals that 43% of Congress received a grade of A or higher. When the grades of the Members of each state delegation are averaged on a state-by-state basis, the highest scoring state delegation is Maine, with a perfect score of 100. Alaska and Wyoming are the lowest scoring state delegations with a score of 20 points each.

Well worth considering is Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, statement, “As the arts and arts education increasingly established a foothold during this year’s presidential campaign trail, the Report Card will serve as a compelling guide for the public to make overall arts-informed decisions at the ballot box on Election Day. Although the Report Card shows that Congress is progressively acknowledging the importance of the arts and arts education, further support is needed in arts funding.

With state and local education budgets being slashed and an increased focus on testing and test preparation, there is a real potential that arts education will disappear from schools. This trend started years ago as more attention was placed on the need for progress in critical courses such as the maths and sciences. Additionally, museum budgets are dependent upon funding that is sought by a myriad of sources all vying for increasingly limited monies.

It is vital that this country and others do not neglect the arts ---especially during an economic downslide. In addition to providing inspiration and a glimpse into the past, the humanities are an essential component of a successful civilization. Furthermore, arts programs are part of a well-rounded education that helps enrich our society and aids individuals to develop their abilities to think creatively and independently. Natalja Fedorova Borovskaja, an art history professor at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts, at a recent conference shared that as a young woman growing up under state atheism in the Soviet Union, she never thought about God except when encountering works of art, music and literature. Truly the arts and and humanities have long been a way to build bridges among people of different countries, cultures, and faiths. If we elect politicians without concern for the arts we have truly built our nation’s bridge to nowhere


Douglass Montrose-Graem said...

You are ALL cordially invited to visit

for a feast of Turners.


Dave King said...

Even in such a small eproduction the Andrew Wyeth water colour looks outstanding.

Opinion seems divided over here as to the likely effect of the slowdown on the Art World. Some overpriced artworks at auction have not fetched the expected sums, but elsewhere there seems to have been little effect, and little expected.

S. A. Hart said...

Dave, fortunately the art market is less impacted by current news (stock market tendencies, geopolitical events, results of high profile sales etc.) than other commodities. However, the major financial losses experienced recently by Russian oligarchs (ie. aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, Viktor Vekselberg, Vagit Alekperov, London-based oil baron Roman Abramovich, Nikolai Tsvetkov, Alexander Lebedev, Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven of the powerful Alfa Group Consortium) is bound to have an impact on auction prices of contemporary art. Having said this, the emerging Russian art collectors appear to be a relatively small group with approximately 30 to 40 active buyers on the international auction market. Consequently, their impact on the overall sales should be limited. I suspect that a type of slow market correction will occur, as buyers will be more apt to consider a wider range of expressions and artists that haven't received significant promotion such as offered by Saatchi, Hirst and Koons. This is good news for the art world.

Shinade said...

Oh my how very interesting but I am afraid it's over my head as far as contributing to the discussion on the effect.

Yes Wyeth is always lovely. However, I just wanted to pop in and say I love the title of this post and also the first photo.

But, after reading the article and also your response to the last comment I am glad to say that I learned something today.

Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

The Brooklyn bridge's beautiful. I am not an artist but I enjoy viewing good works.

Anonymous said...

On a positive note, and a bit beside the point of discussion here, I think it's wonderful that the museums of the Smithsonian remain free. We can't forget free exposure to the arts during a time like this. I used to teach art in the D.C. area. A sad fact, although the museums are a wonderful resource and free, most local families don't take their children to go see them. I suppose that's why there are field trips...

S. A. Hart said...

Nancy, I think your point is very relevant to the discussion. It is essential that museums such as the Smithsonian and the British Museum remain free to the public, for this is sadly the only way many people can afford to view important works of art and history.

Similarly, exposure to music through programs such as those provided to schools by symphonies is also important. Earlier this month a couple of philanthropists in New York City privately subsidized the $220 ticket price to see the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Doctor Atomic." Agnes Varis, a managing director of the Met's board, and her husband, Karl Leichtman, bought $500,000 worth of prime orchestra tickets to the John Adams opera so they could be resold at $30 each. The seats usually cost $175 to $220. I"m confident this form of generosity is the only way many people would be able to attend the production.

Many years ago I lived in DC and had the privilege of spending my lunch hours at the National Gallery. Seldom did I encounter anyone else who actually lived in "the District".....and generally the kids on field trips could be found at the Natural History Museum, not at the art galleries. Again, parents need to take advantage of what is in their region, especially when it's freely available.