“White House Art That’s Come and Gone”

White House Art That’s Come and Gone,” The Root, 1 June 2009.
How the Obama family is bringing black artists to the “people’s house.”


Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a great piece about how the Obama family is changing the visual art on the walls of the White House. Over time, the Reagans, Clintons and both Bush White Houses have added to the expansive permanent collection of two- and three-dimensional art—and now the Obamas are looking to make their mark. Naturally, the first black president benefits from an attentive arts milieu:

The Obamas are sending ripples through the art world as they put the call out to museums, galleries and private collectors that they’d like to borrow modern art by African-American, Asian, Hispanic and female artists for the White House. In a sharp departure from the 19th-century still lifes, pastorals and portraits that dominate the White House’s public rooms, they are choosing bold, abstract art works.

Last week the first family installed seven works on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in the White House’s private residence, including “Sky Light” and “Watusi (Hard Edge),” a pair of blue and yellow abstracts by lesser-known African-American abstract artist Alma Thomas, acclaimed for her post-war paintings of geometric shapes in cheery colors.

Obama famously decided to keep the yellow starburst rug in the Oval Office selected by his predecessor, George W. Bush. But in February, he packed away a bust of World War II-era British premier Winston Churchill in order to install a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. This was a moderately controversial move—but only five of the 450 White House works of art were created by black artists (one of the paintings, from Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series”, has been criticized for depicting black men at work). If the Obamas want to leave a legacy of black aesthetics, they’re going to have to ruffle some feathers.

I discussed the art on the walls of the “people’s house” with Lee Rosenbaum, an art critic and contributor to the JOURNAL, on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio program.

Give it a listen. Rosenbaum thought the Obamas’ choices were fairly trendy, but not exactly pushing the envelope. She encouraged them to look at Romare Bearden, a black artist whose narrative collages were, incidentally, a key inspiration for playwright August Wilson, whose play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” the Obamas recently took in in New York City. I thought that the Obamas—who have been patrons of the arts long before arriving in the White House—should push to break the rule that says they cannot add works created in the past 25 years to the permanent collection. Meaningful art is ahead of the times (though I doubt we’ll see any of those eBay Obama portraits in the East Room anytime soon).

Dayo Olopade

(Photo, via Flickr user Farm4: Romare Bearden’s “Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket”—also the original title of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”)


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