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Official Portraits Draw Skeptical Gaze
Cost to Taxpayers Varies but Can Reach Nearly $50,000

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.

Ellen G. Miles, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, said the museum is researching official portraits for a possible exhibit of such works in 2011.

"It's an old tradition in Western art that goes back to the Renaissance. The idea is to honor and celebrate the person's accomplishments," Miles said.

President George Washington once sat for famed artist Gilbert Stuart, but in modern times lesser-known artists have dominated the world of government portraiture. Simmie Knox gained recognition for painting President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, but he also created portraits of former energy secretary Hazel R. O'Leary and former transportation secretary Norman Y. Mineta. Steven Polson, who is now painting Rumsfeld, boasts a list that includes former commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown, former EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and former energy secretary and U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson.

Joy Thomas of Murray, Ky., who has painted Collins, the former Coast Guard commandant, and former Navy secretary Richard J. Danzig, said she typically needs six to eight months to complete a work. Some portraitists work from photographs, but she prefers painting from life, which requires up to 10 sittings of three hours each.

"The way a reputation is made is by doing official, archival portraits," said Thomas, 50, who said it is still "a mystery to me" how the contracts are awarded. "You've got to get some of those under your belt to be taken seriously."

James Pollard, 54, of Cazenovia, Wis., has twice painted Mineta, once to mark Mineta's tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Public Works and Transportation and the other in honor of his service as secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration.

"You're sort of creating a historical artifact and the better it is, the nicer it is to have around in the future," he said.

Mineta agrees that the public should have more opportunity to view these works because they can be inspirational. He said he sometimes lingered in a hallway lined with portraits to consider his predecessors' accomplishments.

"As I go down the hallway looking at these, I just sort of thank and salute these former secretaries for the job they did," Mineta said. "And, hopefully, as some future secretary is looking at my portrait, either in Transportation or Commerce, they might say, 'Hey, Norm, thanks for the job you did.' "

David Bjelajac, a professor of art history at George Washington University, said portraitists must subordinate their artistic vision to the wishes of the subject. For that reason, top-flight artists normally are not interested in accepting such commissions, he said. Still, he believes photographs offer a poor substitute.

"A photograph has an association with journalistic everyday life, whereas a painted image suggests something that transcends the moment," Bjelajac said.

Still, as cost-cutters weigh options, there is historic precedent. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter branded portraits an "unnecessary luxury" and directed his Cabinet members to use color photographs.

Elliot L. Richardson, commerce secretary under President Gerald R. Ford, went one step further. To commemorate his stint, he unveiled his self-portrait in 1978. "You may ask yourself, 'Why not the best?' " he said at the time. "The answer, of course, is that it's too expensive."

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