It was the perfect backdrop for business. Inside the West Atrium, near enough to the visiting statue, Washington’s plexus was pumping at full speed. An exasperated Nancy Pelosi couldn’t get the crowd to hush for her speech on Italian-American relations. State Department and embassy dignitaries posed for photos with the sculpture. Big donors, the kind who give to both political and capital campaigns, imbibed sweet Sicilian wines. Though the fiscal cliff loomed during the final weeks of 2012, the National Gallery of Art staged a glamorous, almost retro opening for Michelangelo’s David-Apollo, on loan from the Bargello in Florence.
The evening recalled flusher times in Washington, when museums were hubs for political and diplomatic showmanship. But the David-Apollo opening revealed that the National Gallery still provides a forum for Washington’s power circle, earning it favored-nation status among the capital’s cultural elite.
In this era of shrinking federal budgets, the gallery has suffered little, thanks to support from Congress. From 2001 to 2011, federal appropriations to the National Gallery grew from $73 million to $158 million — or rose 70 percent when accounting for inflation — a growth rate nearly triple that of other federally-funded cultural institutions such as the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. When compared with museums across the country, the gallery’s growth is staggering. On average, museum budgets have grown by less than 15 percent since 1991, according to a report by the American Alliance of Museums.
For a decade, the largest congressionally chartered art museum in the country grew steadily, quietly and with bipartisan federal support. The effects of such growth are in plain view on Pennsylvania Avenue. The gallery’s West Building is covered in scaffolding, a symptom of ongoing maintenance projects. Acquisitions pour in as the gallery maintains high attendance and free admission: its 4 million annual visitors routinely make it one of the 10 most popular art museums in the world, according to annual reports by the Art Newspaper. The gallery’s longtime director, Earl A. Powell III, a celebrated art historian, is one of the highest-paid museum directors in the country. The gallery’s success breeds friends in high places. With fans on the appropriations and oversight committees in Congress, not only has its budget grown, but its campus could expand, as well. In 2011, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) proposed that the Federal Trade Commission give its current headquarters, the historic Apex Building across the street from the gallery, to the museum for a much-needed expansion.
Though the gallery suffered a budget cut of $5.7 million due to sequester, big projects sail forward. In March, the gallery announced that renovations will close the I.M. Pei–designed East Building for three years beginning in 2014. At the same time, a privately funded $30 million expansion of the building's towers will occur.