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Two Art Museums Reopen in Washington, D.C., After Extensive Renovations

August 3, 2006 at 6:40 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: After six years with doors shuttered and a $300 million renovation, the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum have once again opened in Washington.

Housed in one of the great architectural gems of the capital, the original Patent Office Building that dates from 1842, the two museums have reoccupied a spectacular space, with plenty of natural light once again allowed to shine in and offices removed to create more exhibition halls.

The museums have always told stories of America, and their iconic images are still given pride of place, including Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of George Washington and Albert Bierstadt’s classic view of the Sierra Nevada.

But along with the renovation has come a chance for redefinition, of portraiture, its styles and subjects of the breadth of American art, and, through both, how best to tell the nation’s story.

Mark Pachter is director of the National Portrait Gallery. His counterpart at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is Elizabeth Broun.

ELIZABETH BROUN, Director, Smithsonian American Art Gallery: We like to be a traditional museum in presenting the very finest artworks made by Americans over more than 300 years. However, we have a very special role also: We try to connect those artworks to the larger story of the country and how we became the society we are today.

I think what Mark and I appreciate the most is that the artworks tell the story in a way that is very approachable and very powerful. It has an emotional component to it.

"Amazing" Americans

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Pachter, what's your mission?

MARK PACHTER, Director, National Portrait Gallery: For the National Portrait Gallery, I could give you the legal language and the enacting legislation, but it's basically: Meet amazing Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meet amazing Americans?

MARK PACHTER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you define "amazing"?

MARK PACHTER: Well, that process is really at the heart of the National Portrait Gallery. The notion was, who do Americans remember? Whom do they notice? And how do we tell our national story in terms of individuals?

That's really at the core of what we do. So we have a process whereby we look and we make sure that it's not just white men on horses, which is probably close to the original conception.

JEFFREY BROWN: White men on horses, that's the old idea of who's amazing?

MARK PACHTER: You know, the National Portrait Gallery, whom you remember, only presidents, only generals and so forth. And of course, we remember presidents and generals. But we expanded the whole idea to understand that there are many fields of achievement.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so, yes, the presidents are all here; the founders; Lincoln in a famous photograph taken shortly before his assassination; the men who've occupied the White House in our own time. And important figures from the past in many fields still hang on the Portrait Gallery's walls.

But portraits come in all sizes and shapes now, some, well, off the wall. And the definition of who's amazing includes Americans now, those very much still with us.

And here's Tony Morrison.

Dead for at least 10 years?

MARK PACHTER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: You used to have -- didn't you use to have a 10-year rule?

MARK PACHTER: Ten-year dead rule, we used to say...

JEFFREY BROWN: Ten-year dead rule.

MARK PACHTER: ... "Is somebody dead enough for the National Portrait Gallery?" That was an in-joke, but it was close to the truth.

JEFFREY BROWN: You had to be dead for at least 10 years.

MARK PACHTER: Ten years. And you understand why, because there's a historical perspective and you didn't want people to influence you and so forth. But then we decided that was crazy, that people, for them to understand the great figures of the past, they have to understand how they connect to the figures of today. And now people can be very much alive, breathing, filled with possibilities, filled with controversy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elsewhere you have Shaquille O'Neal, Mia Hamm...

MARK PACHTER: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... people who are sort of in the papers every day.

MARK PACHTER: Yes. We say, is Shaquille O'Neal a basketball player or is he one of the most extraordinary basketball players of all time? If the answer is yes, he belongs here. Mia Hamm, again, her...

JEFFREY BROWN: You actually sit around and you say...

MARK PACHTER: We do.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... you guys, you're curators, you're the head of a museum, and you say, "Is Shaquille O'Neal one of the greatest basketball players of all time?"

MARK PACHTER: We absolutely do. And we read, and we...

JEFFREY BROWN: That sounds like fun.

MARK PACHTER: Well, when it's Shaquille O'Neal, it is. But we read things. We call people in the know about sports. And the thing is we're also doing that with scientists, too. So the idea that we're only looking at sports people now, whereas before it is only politicians, is not true; we're just widening the range of whom we pay attention to.

America's pluralism

JEFFREY BROWN: The Smithsonian American Art Museum has also expanded its range. Here one can take a chronological tour and see the development of the nation's art, American artists looking to Europe's great masters, then trying to bring forth something new.

ELIZABETH BROUN: I love this, because it is a contemporary take on the pluralism of America, and it shows that it's alive and well.

JEFFREY BROWN: The renovation has allowed the museum to show off a unique image of America. A 33-foot-wide installation by the pioneering Korean-born video artist Nam June Paik, who chose different images, many from popular culture, to represent each state in TV monitors.

JEFFREY BROWN: So Kansas, your home state, gets "The Wizard of Oz"?

ELIZABETH BROUN: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kentucky, I see the Kentucky Derby.

ELIZABETH BROUN: We have the Kentucky Derby. That's exactly right.

JEFFREY BROWN: He tried to find something representative?

ELIZABETH BROUN: If you look at Iowa, you've got morphing political candidates.

JEFFREY BROWN: So this idea of defining American art, which is part of your business...

ELIZABETH BROUN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... did you get a chance to rethink it during these years, as the museum was renovated?

ELIZABETH BROUN: Absolutely. And I think what we have come to understand is it's not one story, it's many stories, many stories across the country, many stories for each one of us. It's whatever our own experience tells us America is about. And...

JEFFREY BROWN: That you can see in this one.

ELIZABETH BROUN: Absolutely, the experiences have been so different. For an artist like Paik, who came in 1954, he was a citizen of the world, he was originally from Korea, and then came here really seeking the avant-garde art world. He wanted to be on the cutting edge of technology.

We think he's the first person ever to use the phrase "electronic superhighway" in print. And he was always the person who best captured how media and how television have transformed our lives. So the deeper story here is about that.

American identity

JEFFREY BROWN: These are museums that are determinately populous and welcoming. Visitors can watch as art restorers do their work, and special exhibitions show contemporary artists capturing aspects of American life.

To what extent does a person come here and discover an American identity?

ELIZABETH BROUN: We hope you come and think about what the American identity is, but we would be the last to say what that identity is in a definitive sense.

The culture was constantly trying to define something distinctively American. But in fact, the people were always thoroughly international, very pluralistic. And I think one of the great gifts of this country is that we've allowed a kind of grassroots populism and a kind of local culture to thrive throughout the decades and centuries.

MARK PACHTER: I call the National Portrait Gallery a conversation about America. We might call both that, both museums.

ELIZABETH BROUN: Right.

MARK PACHTER: It's the conversation. It's the ongoing question of who we are. So asking the question as you did is very American. Having only one answer has become, I think, less so.

JEFFREY BROWN: Six years later then, this conversation of American images has started anew.