50 Years: A New Lens

The National Portrait Gallery is golden!  Using the tagline 50 Eye Opening Years, the museum is encountering a cultural awakening and a burgeoning movement of diversity and inclusion. Established by congress in 1962, the museum opened its doors to the public on October 7, 1968 in the former Patent Office Building.  In 1963, The Smithsonian Board of Regents appointed the National Portrait Gallery’s commission and came up with a two-fold mandate: “The acquisition and exhibition of portraits and statuary of those who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the United States; and establishment of the gallery as a research center for American biography, iconography, and history.”  Portraits were considered based on likeness and that they originated from life.

Bust of an African Woman
Profiled Series: Untitled: Bust of an African Woman by Henry Weeks; marble, 1859; The J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles and Bust of Mm. Adélaïde Julie Mirleau de Newville, née Garnier d'Isle by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle; marble, 1750s; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles by Ken Gonzales-Day, 2009 (printed 2017); Archival ink on rag paper; Courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Copyright 2017, Ken Gonzales-Day, all rights reserved.

Modeled after the National Portrait Gallery in London, which was founded in 1856, the American model would illuminate the history of the United States and the people who shaped it.  Going through the halls 50 years ago, one would see portraits of elite white men, very few images of women, nor people of color who have remarkably changed and influenced American culture and history.  Unlike many museums funded by bequests, when the National Portrait Gallery was established in 1968, there was no collection. Charles Nagel the museum’s first director (1964-1969) began acquiring the collection from donations.  In fact, Nagel is quoted as saying: “I am engaged in getting the National Portrait Gallery started, a difficult task in that it is starting at least a hundred years late .” To date, the collection now spans more than 20,000 objects ranging from prints and drawings, to paintings and sculptures.  The museum’s collection policy has also expanded to include the portrayal  of living sitters. Prior to 2001, only sitters that had been dead for 10 years could enter the museum’s collection.

Many of the Portrait Gallery’s most recent contemporary exhibitions offer a re-interpretation of American history and a cultural shift in the art history paradigm.  Through our collections and exhibitions, we are telling stories that were not told 50 years ago. Underscoring visual biography and the study of portraiture, we convey complex stories of individuals who have changed and shaped this nation’s history.

Silhouettes against a wall
Auntie Walker's Wall Sampler for Savages by Kara Walker, 2013; Cut paper on wall, Installation approx: 132 × 408 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Exhibitions such as The Sweat of Their Face:  Portrayals of American Workers (on view from November 3, 2017 through September 3, 2018), UnSeen: Our Past in New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar (on view through January 6, 2019), Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now (on view through May 19, 2019). 1968: An American Odyssey (on view through May 19, 2018) Eye to I: Self Portraiture from 1900 to Today opening on November 2 through August 19, 2019—will close out the celebratory year.  Eye to I includes iconic artists and cultural influencers who have explored self-representation and identity through portraiture.  These exhibitions open the lens to a less myopic view of portraiture and history.  Canonical conventions and perspectives are no longer restricting who are worthy to have their portraits hung.

While the museum still has a long way to go in our inclusion efforts, we are finding our way and embracing those voices and images that have been absent.  Long gone are the days of showing one side and one view of the American experience.  Our history is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional.  As the Portrait Gallery turns 50 on October 7, 2018, we will continue to forge ahead leaving behind colonizing practices related to race and identity.