A Work of Art Renewed

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2006

To listen to Marc Pachter and Elizabeth Broun talk about the changes that have been made to the newly renovated Old Patent Office Building -- home since 1968 to the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, over which directors Pachter and Broun, respectively, preside -- you'd think that the Greek Revival structure had been torn down and rebuilt in the form of a giant stone question mark. Philosophical inquiries come up often and easily, discussion topics along the lines of "How have we become the nation we are today?" and "What does portraiture mean?"

Stroll through the building, which opens to the public Saturday after a 6 1/2 -year, top-to-bottom overhaul, and you might find yourself asking another, somewhat different stumper: "Where am I?"

It's not just the new acquisitions, the spiffed-up amenities or that new-museum smell. One of the biggest changes visitors will encounter is that the two museums no longer occupy clearly delineated halves of a single building, as they did before, but that they now flip-flop from floor to floor. The Portrait Gallery, for instance, formerly restricted to the south side of the structure, now sits to the east (Seventh Street) on the first floor. On the second it leapfrogs to the west (Ninth Street), while coming around to the south side (F Street) only when you get to the third floor.

Don't worry, say representatives of the two museums' public affairs staffs, the signage will be ample and clear. My own advice? Look for the nearest wall label. If the subject of the artwork is listed first (e.g., George Washington), with the name of the artist second (e.g., Gilbert Stuart), you're in the Portrait Gallery. The American Art Museum does it the other way around.

This intermingling of spaces, with the division of real estate based on what looks best where, and not an arbitrary slice down the middle of the cake, is part of a newfound spirit of cooperation between the two museums, whose relationship has not always been harmonious. Shared spaces include the 346-seat Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium and the Lunder Conservation Center, a new, one-of-a-kind facility that will allow the public to watch conservators do their jobs preserving art behind the windows of state-of-the-art, glassed-in workshops. (Like the Isaac Mizrahi-designed aprons? They're available in the first-floor gift shop, another shared space.) Eventually, the museums will also have joint use of the enclosed Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, a year-round gathering spot scheduled to open in late 2007, once the undulating canopy by architect Norman Foster is finished being installed.

The alliance even carries over to a new name. Collectively, the two institutions will henceforth be known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, while each museum will retain its distinct identity.

Most of the improvements to the building involved the physical plant: window replacement; a new roof; re-opened skylights; restored floors; steam-cleaned facades; new elevators; plumbing and electrical upgrades; and the reclamation of 57,000 square feet of gallery space. But other changes abound. They include new hours of operation (11:30 to 7 daily); the integration of decorative arts into the American Art Museum's fine art galleries; the suspension of a Portrait Gallery rule that a subject be dead 10 years before the portrait is added to the collection; and the addition of two cafes (the Upper West Side Cafe, on the third floor, west wing, and the outdoor Portico Cafe, which will be open seasonally, overlooking the Spy Museum and the Hotel Monaco on F Street).

One of the biggest and most exciting enhancements is something called the Luce Foundation Center for American Art (see sidebar on Page 30). Part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this three-floor, library-like "open-storage" facility is unique in Washington in that it will allow visitors, for the first time, to take a behind-the-scenes look at 3,300 works from the museum's vaults that were not chosen for display in the public galleries.

Even without the addition of this little museum-within-a-museum, though, it's clear that, from all the other changes that have taken place at -- and that continue to transform -- the venerable Old Patent Office Building, there's a new kid in town.

Want to know what's on view? Michael O'Sullivan offers previews of 13 exhibitions.

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