The expansive architecture and top-tier acquisitions of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opening next month in Arkansas, is raising expectations of a new category-killer in art holdings. But Washington can shrug and say: Been there, done that. For while grand ambitions and drama are de rigueur in art collecting, a few of the origin stories of this region’s museums have secured their place in the record books.
If you want to talk about groundbreaking architecture, consider Baltimore’s Peale Museum, founded in 1814 by painter Rembrandt Peale. (Like his brothers Rubens, Raphaelle and Titian, Peale had a lot to live up to — and he did, becoming portraitist to presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.) The building Peale designed to house his collection of art and fossils was the first in the nation constructed specifically to be a museum. It was also America’s first public building to use gas lighting. The Peale collection was moved to the Maryland Historical Society in 1999, but the original structure still stands at 225 North Holliday St.
A couple of decades after Peale made history in Baltimore, the death of a wealthy, eccentric Brit changed the landscape of art in Washington. Not that there was much of a cultural landscape to speak of here before James Smithson’s money fell into the government’s lap. Still, America captured the attention of the childless mineralogist, born in France as the illegitimate son of an English duke. He never set foot in this country, and yet for reasons he took to his grave, Smithson left his fortune to the land he’d only dreamed about, “to found at Washington . . . an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” His family contested the will, but all was found to be in order. Smithson’s bequest was conditional upon his sole beneficiary, a nephew, dying without heirs, which the nephew did just a few years after Smithson. The family’s loss was Washington’s gain: In 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was born — what is now the world’s largest museum and research complex.
One of its treasuries, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was the nation’s first collection of works by American artists, and it is the country’s the oldest public art collection. But it isn’t housed in anything like the Peale’s cozy, custom-built structure. The contemporary wit and folk curiosities of the American Art Museum, along with the holdings of the National Portrait Gallery, are showcased in the old Patent Office Building. It had been built on a massive, block-filling scale to hold models of inventions, the doll-size fruits of the nation’s dreamers.
If only those walls could talk! Do the echoes of creative enterprise, along with comfort, healing — and tragedy —somehow infuse the art there today? The building also served as a Civil War hospital and morgue. Walt Whitman visited the wounded there, where the once-imperiled Union is now celebrated in Nam June Paik’s video portrait, “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii,” a digital distillation of what makes each state unique and the quirky patchwork that connects us all.