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Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery Opens “Celebrating Fifty Years”

August 11, 2017

In 1968, following major renovations, the Old Patent Office Building opened as the permanent home for two Smithsonian museums, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Collection of Fine Arts (later renamed the Smithsonian American Art Museum). To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that event, the National Portrait Gallery will present the bilingual (English and Spanish) exhibition “Celebrating Fifty Years,” from Aug. 11 through Jan. 6, 2019.

Curated by Portrait Gallery Historian James Barber, “Celebrating Fifty Years” features photographic images of the building and of the opening galas for each museum, along with an architectural model of the Old Patent Office, gala invitations and programs, exhibition catalog, museum brochures and other celebratory ephemera.

The Old Patent Office Building is a National Historic Landmark. President Andrew Jackson laid the first cornerstone in 1836, and President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball was held on the site in 1865. When the building underwent renovation in the 1960s, historic preservation had only just begun to gain traction in the United States, so it was fortuitous that the capital’s third-oldest public building—a model of Greek revival architecture—was spared the fate of being demolished.

Over the past 50 years, in addition to serving as a vibrant downtown center for the arts, the the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum have anchored their neighborhood amidst a sea of changes.

On April 4, 1968, as the National Collection of Fine Arts was preparing for its opening, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. ignited riots in major cities, including Washington, D.C. Some of the images included in this exhibition show the damage caused by looters who vandalized Hecht’s, a major department store across the street from the Old Patent Office Building. The community was greately affected by the riots of 1968, and in the 1980s, the decline of the neighborhood caused many of the area’s retailers to close. While the two museums have felt the effects of these transformations to some degree, they have consistently produced quality exhibitions, publications and programs while steadily—and substantially—expanding their collections. More recently, particularly since the construction of Capital One Arena (formerly called Verizon Center), in the late 1990s, the neighborhood has experienced a revival, during which both museums have witnessed increased attendance and interest.

National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists, whose lives tell the American story.

The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, located at Eighth and F Streets N.W., Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Website: npg.si.edu. Connect with the museum at Facebook, Instagram, blog, Twitter and YouTube.

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