By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007
I was a cub of a reporter when they sent me out to cover the art museums of Washington, a city desk assignment then, better than cops, better than the District Building, a neat beat, but a small one. That was 40 years ago. Washington's museums were not then what they are now.
By the standards of today they were meager institutions, their energies were tepid and their exhibitions scant. We didn't mind. You could smoke at the Phillips Collection. If you necked among the smiling Buddhas at the Freer Gallery no one else would see you because no one else was there. There were cobwebs on the stairs to the back rooms of the Corcoran. Their installations changed seldom, if at all, so that the regulars you met there had mostly come to see art they'd seen before.
I used to bound up the red steps every time I found myself walking by the Phillips to check out once again the melting browns and golds of "Woman Sweeping" by Vuillard, which hung just inside the door. The museums felt like clubs then, semi-secret refuges for the self-selected few.
"In those days," remembers the painter Willem de Looper, "you could still hide in the Rothko room, and if you weren't alone you were probably with someone who loved the stuff, and wanted to be there, and that was all right, too."
The feast that museums offer now hadn't yet been set. The ceaseless flow of masterworks -- the walls of Leonardos, Titians and Vermeers, the giant Olmec heads and Sri Lankan bodhisattvas, the telephone-book catalogues and theatrical displays -- hadn't yet begun.
The Mall was mostly grass. Though J. Carter Brown already was at work in the National Gallery of Art, he wasn't yet director, and nobody could guess what a showman he would be. "King Tut" had not yet happened. I.M. Pei's East Building hadn't yet been built. Nor had the Hirshhorn with its modern art, or the Sackler with its Eastern. The Washington Project for the Arts, the Goh Annex at the Phillips, the Kreeger and the Katzen, and the Indian and African and women's national museums, didn't yet exist. There was no Portrait Gallery either. No Smithsonian American Art Museum. When the Smithsonian in those days ventured to show art it did so behind the elephant, in Natural History.
Still, something was stirring. You could sense it. Pop art was popping. The Washington color painters were getting attention. I still supposed that high art was progressing toward some glowing abstract future. I hadn't yet grown jaded. I was too young. But being young felt cool in the forward-forging '60s, it attached you to the times, and, anyway, I wasn't all that young. I was older than the National Gallery of Art.
And I was lucky in my timing. I got the beat the year the industry took off.
That October, "Smoke," by Tony Smith, made the cover of Time magazine. That great big plywood space frame, which looked something like a cross between a minimalist sculpture and a spider, had been constructed at the Corcoran, where it took up half the atrium and put Washington on the map.
In 1967, farseeing Walter Hopps, who may have been the sharpest art scout in the country, moved to Washington from California.
Though William E. Gerdts, the big-brained Americanist, was already here, Washington in those days boasted few other distinguished art historians. Others would soon come.
In 1967, young Carter Brown was put in charge of planning a daylight-drenched new building, with a center for advanced study, at the National Gallery of Art.
That gallery is famous now for its grand installations. It wasn't then. Gil Ravenel and Mark Leithauser, who together would design the grandest -- "King Tut," "Treasure Houses," "Circa 1492" -- hadn't yet arrived. "Blockbuster exhibition" was not a term we knew. The gallery's West Building hadn't been designed for traveling exhibits. When it opened in 1941 temporary shows weren't part of the program. There were splendid daylit galleries for the permanent collection, but nothing of the sort for Tutankhamen's golden death mask. When the "King Tut" show arrived in 1976, it was installed behind the coat-check desk in windowless rooms downstairs.
"Tut's" quarter-inch-thick catalogue was mostly black-and-white, and relatively contentless. In 1967, the museums' publications seldom offered readers color reproductions, which cost too much. They didn't only skimp on books, they also skimped on staff. When you called the National Gallery, you didn't get a press person, you got the director. The Phillips was especially frugal. Its full-time staff of 10 or so also had to take their turns behind the information desk, or standing around as guards. It was a lot more like a comfy, thoroughly lived-in home than a big-time art museum. Once, while hunting for a bathroom upstairs in the offices, I found paintings stored in the tub.
Money was short in those days. The museum didn't charge admission, and Duncan Phillips's family still paid all the bills. Not anymore. Today to get into its big shows you have to pay $14. The Phillips has an annual budget of $11 million, 35 trustees and a staff (including volunteers, part-timers and interns) of 244.
The National Gallery's staff has more than tripled (from 320 to 1,100). Its collection has more than doubled (to 116,000 objects). Its governmental appropriation, $2.8 million in 1967, is now $116 million a year.
Many more people visit the works of art in Washington's museums than go to see the Redskins play. Last year the attendance was 4.7 million at the National Gallery of Art.
Did we see this coming? Not really. What's happened to museums since 1967 isn't just their doing. It's part of something bigger. The world is going visual. We see faster than we used to (watch the cutting on TV). Color reproductions are ubiquitous. What used to be our typewriters are now equipped with picture screens. Nearly every teenage kid has a camera in his telephone.
Lots of locals, me for one, know a whole lot more art history than we did 40 years ago. This shouldn't be surprising. Think of all the objects from all over the world that the art museums of Washington have offered to our eyes. Think of all the insight, knowledge of the past, subtlety and beauty that they've poured into our lives. They once were for the few, now they're for the many. They've been teaching us to see.