A Walk-In Closet for All
American Art Storage Facility Is Just Part of the Museum-Going Experience

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.

"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.

The setting and layout are elegant. It's like taking a step back into some 19th-century robber baron's personal library. "I love the historic echo to when the building was open," says the museum director. In its earliest life, the building was a place for inventors to display their patents, and an astonishing number of people toured the building to look at them.

This design, aiming to be physically and philosophically open, also achieves a balance between the density of the arrangement and the airiness of the space. The bays are on a balcony with the original railings from 1880 and a clear view to the floor below. Uncovered in the renovation is a skylight that runs the length of the wing where the Luce Center is located. "Before, this wing was like a cave," Broun says.

It was designed by Claire Larkin, special projects director at the museum; interpretative materials were spearheaded by George Speer, curator of the Luce Foundation.

In the dense mix, Broun hopes people will make their own discoveries.

At the entrance to the Luce Center, on the third floor, there is almost a living room arrangement of 60 large sculptures. Selma Burke's "Untitled Woman and Child" stands majestically on a credenza. In the middle of the foyer is a restored marble floor and enough space for a cafe. The emphasis is on the 19th and 20th centuries; "Any Questions?," a 91-inch work by William King, sets the tone for the whole enterprise.

A wrought-iron staircase leads to the mezzanine, where 18th-to-20th-century paintings and sculpture, as well as folk art, are arranged. The fourth floor balcony holds 20th-century paintings, crafts and sculpture.

The arrangements are deceivingly simple. Bays created by two cases face each other. Religious art, political art, toys and fish decoys are all represented.

In the museum's closet was "Three Way Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and an Unidentified Native American," perhaps by William Mackintosh. This puzzling piece of Americana by an unidentified artist has the three men blending into one another in a design on wood and canvas strips that rotates like a vertical blind.

A visit might also lead to early-20th-century "memory jugs." One glass bottle is decorated with a harmonica and razor, perhaps a tribute to a barber who really wanted to be a musician. Someone used a high-buttoned shoe, decorated with a row of teeth, to remember a loved one (or themselves).

Miniatures and jewelry also await discovery. In specially designed drawers that slide open with a push of a button, there's an army of small pieces. In one section are 434 portrait miniatures. In another, 264 examples of medals. And another holds 194 pieces of contemporary craft jewelry. Like the museum itself, the drawers are crammed with new lessons in art appreciation.

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