A Walk-In Closet for All

Paul Feeley's sculpture
Paul Feeley's sculpture "Jack" is among the works openly stored in the American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center. (Nikki Kahn - Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

The dilemma at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was how to find space to display its 41,000 artworks.

Few museums can put everything on the walls, and most have cramped storage areas. Many do a lively business by organizing their overstock works and treasures for the road.

As it prepared for its new home, with both a generous gift and some prodding from Congress, the museum decided to put its extra bounty -- 3,300 works -- right in public view.

When the building reopens next Saturday, the museum will unveil one of its most distinctive features: the city's first open art storage space, named the Luce Foundation Center for American Art. The display comprises a series of 64 glass cases and three banks of pull-out drawers that fill a gorgeous space of two mezzanines and a floor-level alcove.

Imagine a 20,400-square-foot walk-in closet with a marble bust of Benjamin Franklin and a WPA-era oil by Charles F. Quest, "The Builders," propped on a shelf. "The Franklin was so hidden, I had never seen it before," says museum Director Elizabeth Broun, who has worked there since 1983.

The visible storage facility was financed by $12.3 million from the fund named for Henry Luce III, late publisher of Time and Fortune magazines and a commissioner of the museum. Congress did a little nudging, too, in the process of approving $116 million for the new home for American Art and the National Portrait Gallery. The building renovation cost $298 million, and delays and expanded plans made features like open storage possible.

Walking among the storage bays, Broun explains that lawmakers wanted to know why 40 percent of the collection was backstage. "We promised to make everything available that we could," she says, stopping to point out a collection of canes. "We had the ideas, had the examples and had the motivation from Congress."

The display gives the museum five times as many works on view than before it closed in 2000. "We just didn't have any more wall space," says Broun, whose museum often lends as many as 2,000 works a year.

Taken out from storage are the sizable holdings of Childe Hassam, William H. Johnson, Paul Manship, Hiram Powers, John Rogers, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Henry O. Tanner. In a special arrangement of vertical frames are 458 paintings by George Catlin. Some of the artists are also represented in the permanent galleries, but the new arrangement gives the fan and student more to absorb.

The renovation uncovered a skylight that runs the length of the wing.
The renovation uncovered a skylight that runs the length of the wing.(Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
"We have always struggled whether to show the in-depth holdings," says Broun. "The Tanners we use a lot, we lend a lot."

Visitors can look at the shelves and marvel at the quantity, guess why something is in storage and not on the main floor, and perhaps wonder whether they would have made the same choice. Should this "Madonna and Child" by Peter Paul Rubens (from the collection given to the Smithsonian by John Gellatly in 1929) be here with the crockery? Is that the undated Grandma Moses "Christmas" in the case in Bay 22?

"This allows people to make their own evaluation. It's empowering," Broun says.

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