Official Portraits Draw Skeptical Gaze

Former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, for posterity.
Former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, for posterity. (Courtesy Of Artist Joy Thomas)
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By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Behind every great man or woman in Washington there is a great painting. As the Bush presidency draws to a close, portrait artists can expect a surge in business from Cabinet secretaries and other elite political appointees who want to preserve their legacies -- and their images -- for posterity.

The Commerce Department, for instance, recently requested artists' bids to paint a likeness of Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who has served since early 2005. The contract pays up to $35,000, and Gutierrez gets to select the winning painter, said Rick Dubik, the department's director of administration.

The Coast Guard in August awarded a $12,000 contract for a portrait of Adm. Thad W. Allen, a sharp drop from the $23,500 it spent in 2005 for a likeness of Allen's predecessor as commandant, Adm. Thomas H. Collins. "We have a very strong sense of history and this is a critical part of it, having that formal tie to the past," said Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela Hirsch.

But investing taxpayer money in the time-honored art of official portraiture has become increasingly controversial. In a throwback to the Jimmy Carter era, some fiscal watchdogs and government scholars suggest that high-quality photographs would be a more cost-efficient way to honor departing dignitaries, especially because most portraits are largely inaccessible to the public.

The price of original portraiture ranges widely. In a sampling, The Washington Post examined summaries of 30 portrait contracts, most awarded with no competitive bidding, and found costs ranging from $7,500 to nearly $50,000. Officials say costs sometimes run higher.

At the upper end of the scale, the Defense Department awaits the expected February completion of a $46,790 portrait of controversial former secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. It will grace a Pentagon hallway lined with portraits of his predecessors, as well as one from Rumsfeld's first stint as defense secretary from 1975 to 1977, officials said.

"Thirty to $35,000, believe it or not, is actually cheap," said Dubik, who has overseen portrait commissions for several of the Commerce Department's 34 past secretaries. "Most of the artists out there, if you look at some of them and what their charges are, it's basically anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000."

By comparison, the $25,000 that NASA paid for a portrait of former administrator Daniel S. Goldin and the $29,500 that the Environmental Protection Agency spent for one of the outgoing administrator, Stephen L. Johnson, look like bargains.

"I was under the impression that this amount was low compared to other agencies," EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said in an e-mail.

Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said agencies should consider snapping photographs of lesser-known officials. She questioned, for example, spending $19,000 for a portrait of former National Cancer Institute director Andrew C. von Eschenbach, now head of the Food and Drug Administration.

"I think most people like the tradition of presidents having their portraits painted," Alexander said. "But where does the line get drawn? Somewhere between the president to Cabinet agency to sub-Cabinet -- somewhere along the way, I'm pretty sure that you'd lose wide public support."

Officials offer many rationales for spending to create original art, a tradition that has encompassed not only Cabinet agencies but also the White House, Congress and Supreme Court.

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