Central Jewel in The Smithsonian Crown?
Arts and Industries Building Would Make a Fine Major Exhibit Hall
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006; Page N01
Yet another New Year's resolution for your list: to catch the Smithsonian's stunning show of Turkish silks in the few weeks left before it closes. The robes in it were made five centuries ago for the sultans' courts in Istanbul, and they look as sumptuous as ever.
Another virtue of this landmark exhibition: It's easy to be almost alone with it.
A visit on Thanksgiving weekend, when the rest of the Mall was mobbed, found the Ottoman show, mounted in the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian art, just pleasantly peopled. On several later visits crowds have been very thin. That's been nice for those who've known to make the trip, but hardly an ideal way to get these fantastic objects seen.
The problem facing the Sackler, as well as a number of other Smithsonian museums?
They're nearly invisible.
The Sackler is tucked away almost unseen, and mostly underground, on the south edge of the Mall.
The National Museum of African Art, in a sister building a few steps from the Sackler, suffers the same way.
The gracious 1859 Renwick Gallery, which mostly shows crafts, is not on the Mall, where tourists expect to go to see Smithsonian museums.
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is in New York, in a former mansion set back from the street at the far north end of that city's Museum Mile.
Only aficionados are likely to make a point of seeking any of these out.
But what if the Sackler and other low-profile galleries had a crack at mounting projects in a space that instantly made its presence felt? Imagine if the Smithsonian had a glorious central exhibition hall that all the institution's museums could compete to fill with their best and most ambitious shows -- a hall that art-loving tourists would automatically think of checking out, maybe because they'd heard of other famous exhibitions, on any number of topics, that had already been there. Then a sleeper show of Asian textiles or African masks or great American silver might have some glimmer of a hope of competing with the popular extravaganzas hosted by the National Gallery, with its wonderfully prominent Mall site.
Not that attendance at the Sackler's Turkish show has been particularly weak: It has averaged somewhere around 1,000 visitors daily, which makes it one of that museum's more successful projects. But that often still leaves plenty of room -- way too much room -- before the galleries are close to filling up. And it doesn't come close to the 10,000 people that can pack a holiday at a major blockbuster.
Displayed in a more attention-grabbing venue, the Sackler's silks might have pulled the kinds of crowds that a less obviously appealing exhibition, titled "Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years," drew to the Royal Academy of Arts in London about this time last year. That show averaged 3,000 visitors a day, and on weekends its opening hours had to be extended to fit everyone in. The Royal Academy isn't even a real museum -- it is basically an empty space for hosting almost any kind of temporary show -- but the worldwide reputation of its exhibition program, and its wonderful old building smack downtown off Piccadilly Circus, make it a sure stop on any cultural tourist's route.
That's the kind of place that we need here.
We already have a good candidate for one: The Smithsonian's glorious 1881 Arts and Industries Building, shuttered since early 2004 and neglected or underused for many years before. In architectural terms, it is one of the most important landmarks in Washington; Adolf Cluss, its innovative designer, has lately had all kinds of new attention. It also sits on one of the best spots in the city, halfway between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, with glorious views up, down and across the Mall.
Tourists already figure this impressive pile must be the "Smithsonian Museum" they imagine they've heard about, and they can only be disappointed when they're not even allowed inside. How many taxpayers know that the Smithsonian is not one museum but an "institution" -- an administrative entity that's only the sum of its many parts? Why not bill a renovated Arts and Industries as the Smithsonian building, filled with major exhibitions that could live up to any visitor's grandest conception -- or misconception -- of what the institution is?
That would be returning Arts and Industries to its initial mission. The structure was originally meant as the public face of the Smithsonian; it was the place where the institution's researchers, beetling away in private in the "Castle" building next door, could put their most fascinating objects out on view for everyone. It was designed to have something like 80,000 square feet of interconnected exhibition space, spread across 17 galleries. Founders christened it the National Museum, and those words still grace its grand facade. Wouldn't it be nice if its contents lived up to them?
Only five of the building's original halls still survive intact, covering about 25,000 square feet. Over the years, the rest of the building's exhibition spaces were walled off for offices, computer services, a daycare center and similar unartful uses. But those five, if suitably rejigged, would still give room to mount some very substantial shows. Even a major museum project, such as the Hirshhorn's Gerhard Richter retrospective in 2003, doesn't usually need much more than 15,000 square feet. Renovate a bunch more of Cluss's original galleries, and our Smithsonian National Museum could offer visitors an unending embarrassment of riches.
If it were hosted in our new space, any half-significant show -- of Asian or African art, of design or craft or even of historic photographs, which the Smithsonian owns by the millions -- would get beyond visitors who already know they've got a yen for its subject, and are willing to hunt down the single museum that covers it. Those silks or masks or pictures would be offered up to all the very different kinds of people who would throng to the Smithsonian's new flagship space, because that's where they'd know to go for whatever counts as best in special exhibitions.
Just as importantly, our Smithsonian National Museum would also free the institution's specialist galleries to focus visitors' attention on the permanent collections they're really supposed to be about.
As things stand, there's always a tussle between a museum's special exhibitions and its permanent collection: What visitor has energy left to tour a building full of works once they've coped with the demands -- on feet and eyes and mind -- made by any ambitious show? By centralizing major temporary events, the Smithsonian would let each of its museums concentrate on showing its own holdings to best possible advantage.
It's true that, without special exhibitions to pull people in, total numbers through any one museum's doors might shrink; resources once earmarked for that single museum might then follow its visitors to the new central space. Ned Rifkin, undersecretary for art at the Smithsonian, cites such drawbacks to this pie-in-the-sky plan. But the total audience seeing the museum's art and projects to best advantage, at Arts and Industries as well as in its own collection galleries, might just as likely grow. There'd be one venue perfectly suited to the larger, more diverse audiences that a temporary show invites and can accommodate, and another that would be a haven for all those who want to dig deeper into a museum's area of expertise.
Funny thing is, it turns out this is hardly a radical or even a novel idea. A similar, mostly unheralded plan had been drawn up for Arts and Industries only a few years back. By the time it closed, designs were well along for the building's renovation as a "Gallery of Galleries" -- if not necessarily to host shows from the Smithsonian's own museums, at least to house projects brought in from outside, or sponsored by units in the Smithsonian that don't have dedicated exhibition spaces of their own. (A large room known as the International Gallery currently fulfills that function. It's in a basement complex called the Ripley Center, underneath the Mall beside the Sackler. Ellen Dorn, the director of exhibitions there, talks about the near impossibility of getting casual visitors to venture down to it.)
Richard Olcott, a partner at Polshek Partnership Architects in New York, was paid $10 million to develop detailed designs for the renovation of Arts and Industries before the project was canceled. He says there are challenges in bringing the old building up to current exhibition standards, but also tremendous potential in its huge spaces and vintage architecture, which could act as a flexible "envelope" for all kinds of different uses.
That plan for Arts and Industries was canned, mostly for lack of money. To bring the long-neglected building fully up to scratch -- let alone to make it the fantastic, flexible exhibition space that my suggestion calls for -- might have cost more than $100 million, without counting the major endowment it would take to keep it running properly. With no clear and vocal constituency to lobby for the building, it looked as though a plea for Arts and Industries could only have lost out to, or distracted from, the final fundraising and organizing then still underway for other major Smithsonian projects: for the new Indian museum, the Udvar-Hazy aviation hall and the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture. (The Arts and Industries Building is still officially in the running as a possible site for African American History, but that is generally seen as a long shot.)
For now, the best hope for Arts and Industries seems to be that some wildly altruistic billionaires -- some modern-day Smithsons or Mellons or Carnegies, or even an old-fashioned Uncle Sam -- might come to care about its plight, or about its vast potential. And then reach deep, deep, deep into their pockets, and help return to us a building that the capital's museumgoers need.
The doors of the Arts and Industries building, shut tight for the indefinite future, currently say "CLOSED FOR RENOVATION."
Imagine if that were true.