How A Work Of Art Makes It Onto The Wall Of The White House

Jan 23, 2017
Originally published on January 23, 2017 12:15 pm

On his first day on the job, President Trump made some changes to the Oval Office; he installed gold drapes and moved some statues. First Families have some leeway to make changes to the White House, and that includes changes to its art collection.

It can take many hands — or eyes — for one work of art to make it into the White House. Take, for example, the large painting the Obamas hung in what's called the Treaty Room.

"It's an unbelievably energetic, beautiful sort of thing, in which a black horse whose body is only somewhat defined is seen running across a kind of crimson field," says curator Mark Rosenthal.

Titled Butterfly, the painting is one of a series of horse paintings by American painter Susan Rothenberg. Rosenthal had admired it since the mid-1970s, and when he became a curator at the National Gallery of Art 20 years later, he remembered the painting and set out to acquire it. But for that, he needed money. So he convinced Texas donors Nancy and Perry Bass to purchase it for the museum.

"I had met them once or twice — barely knew them," Rosenthal says. But what he did know was that they were "revered conservationists."

Rosenthal thought the picture of the horse might speak to them. It did, and the painting entered the National Gallery's collection.

So how did the painting end up in the private quarters of the White House nearly 15 years later? The National Gallery's current staff preferred not to be interviewed. But Rosenthal says, typically, the new first family sends someone there, and to other museums, to pick out art for their private living quarters.

"It might be a friend, it might be a decorator ... but it was someone designated by the president and first lady to come to the National Gallery of Art and choose work ... " Rosenthal explains. "It's very much [like] a kid in a candy store."

When it comes to the public spaces in the White House, the rules are different. In the early 1960s, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy helped bring some order to the process of how art should enter the White House and be paid for. For decades, it was pretty haphazard, says art historian William Kloss.

"In the 19th century in particular, one of the ways Congress had to express their unhappiness with a particular administration incoming was to give them little or no funding for new furniture or new rugs or anything that was needed," Kloss explains. "So on more than one occasion, they held a big sale on the White House lawn so they could raise funds for new furnishings."

Today, those funds come from The White House Historical Association, a non-profit that raises money from private donations and the sale of merchandise such as books and Christmas ornaments.

Former White House curator Betty Monkman started out at the White House in 1967, a few years after President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order establishing the curator position. She says the goal is to collect work by and about Americans, and there were gaps in the collection.

"We only had copies of a lot of 19th century paintings," Monkman says. She was always on the lookout at auctions for rare life portraits of people like John and Abigail Adams. ("Which we still have not acquired because there are so few of them out there," she says.)

As curator, she was also looking for paintings that represented the nation's different regions. A New Mexico gap, for example, was filled in during the Clinton administration with a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe.

First ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama also modernized the collection. Obama acquired a vibrant abstract work by the late Alma Thomas, the first African-American woman in the permanent collection. Bush acquired a painting by African-American artist Jacob Lawrence for the White House Green Room.

In 2008, Bush told C-SPAN that the White House should showcase American traditions, but also stay relevant.

"The White House goes on, and history continues to be made here," she says. "I also want the White House to reflect more modern presidents and more modern times."

It's too soon to say what impact Donald and Melania Trump will have on the White House art collection. But former curator Mark Rosenthal says these decisions are worth watching.

"What a person or family chooses to live with is incredibly telling about their openness to visual experiences," he says. "One ought to be expanding one's horizons all the time."

The White House is actually an accredited museum, with a curatorial staff and a committee dedicated to its preservation. So if the Trumps do decide to add to its collection, they'll have plenty of help.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On his first day on the job, President Trump made some changes to the Oval Office. He installed gold drapes and moved some statues. First families do have some leeway to make changes to the White House, including changes throughout the house to the art on the walls. NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks at how art gets to the most powerful address in the world.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: A gallery in New York, a curator in Washington, a wealthy couple from Texas - it can take many hands for just one work of art to make it into the White House. Here's an example. The Obamas had a large painting by Susan Rothenberg hanging in what's called the Treaty Room. Mark Rosenthal has admired it since the mid-'70s.

MARK ROSENTHAL: It's an unbelievably energetic, beautiful sort of thing in which a black horse, whose body is only somewhat defined, is seen running across a kind of crimson field.

BLAIR: When Rosenthal became a curator at the National Gallery of Art 20 years later, he still remembered the painting and set out to acquire it. For that, he needed money. So he convinced Texas donors Nancy and Perry Bass, whose money came from the oil industry, to purchase it for the museum.

ROSENTHAL: The other thing that was notable about them was that they were revered conservationists.

BLAIR: Rosenthal thought the picture of the horse might speak to them. It did, and the painting entered the National Gallery's collection. Jump ahead to 2009 when the Obamas moved into the White House. The National Gallery's current staff preferred not to be interviewed, but Rosenthal says, typically, the new first family sends someone there and to other museums to pick out art for their private living quarters.

ROSENTHAL: And it might be a friend. It might be a decorator. It might be anybody. It's very much a kid in a candy store.

BLAIR: In the case of the Rothenberg horse painting, that lucky kid was the Obamas' decorator. But when it comes to public areas in the White House, the rules are different.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A TOUR OF THE WHITE HOUSE WITH MRS. JOHN F. KENNEDY")

CHARLES COLLINGWOOD: Well, now, can you make these changes according to your own personal tastes and desires?

JACQUELINE KENNEDY: Well, no. I have a committee which has museum experts and government people and private citizens on it.

BLAIR: In the early 1960s, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy helped bring some order to the process of how art should enter the White House and be paid for. For decades, it was pretty haphazard, says art historian Bill Kloss.

BILL KLOSS: In the 19th century, in particular, one of the ways that Congress had to express their unhappiness with a particular administration incoming was to give them little or no funding for new furniture or new rugs or anything that was needed. So on more than one occasion, they held a big sale on the White House lawn in front and sold what they could to raise funds to buy new furnishings.

BLAIR: Today, those funds come from a nonprofit that raises money from private donations and merchandise.

BETTY MONKMAN: Through the sale of their books and their publications and their Christmas ornaments and so forth.

BLAIR: Betty Monkman is a former White House curator. She started out at the White House in 1967, a few years after President Lyndon Johnson signed an executive order establishing the curator position. She says the goal is to collect a work by and about Americans, and there were gaps in the collection.

MONKMAN: We only had copies of a lot of 19th-century paintings, so we always were on the lookout for life portraits of, for instance, John Adams or someone - or Abigail Adams, which we still have not acquired because there are so few of them out there - but also, then, to have paintings that represented certain regions of the country.

BLAIR: A New Mexico gap, for example, was filled in during the Clinton administration with a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe. First ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama also modernized the collection. Obama acquired a vibrant abstract work by the late Alma Thomas, the first African-American woman in the permanent collection. Bush acquired a painting by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence for the White House Green Room. In 2008, she told C-SPAN the White House should showcase American traditions of the past but also stay relevant.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "WHITE HOUSE TOUR WITH LAURA BUSH")

LAURA BUSH: The White House goes on, and history continues to be made here. And so I also want the White House to reflect more modern presidents and more modern times.

BLAIR: It's too soon to say what impact Mr. and Mrs. Trump will have on the White House art collection, but former curator Mark Rosenthal says that these decisions are worth watching.

ROSENTHAL: What a person or family chooses to live with is incredibly telling about their openness to visual experiences. One ought to be expanding one's horizons all the time.

BLAIR: The White House is actually an accredited museum with a curatorial staff and a committee dedicated to its preservation. So if Mr. and Mrs. Trump do decide to add to its collection, they'll have plenty of help.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.