It was a year for connoisseurship, not chic; for closer inspection of the known than of the new; for the triumph of content over trends.
Even shock and outrage came in the form of a retrospective: The Hirshhorn's 10th anniversary "Content" show -- through Jan. 6 -- had museum-goers on the verge of assaulting guards despite the fact that it dealt with a decade-old, post-Modernist drift toward renewed interest in human concerns and social consciousness. (Does Washington prefer to view the new in the cages of SoHo?)
Whatever the shortcomings of this overstuffed and undigested show, it put the season's only other l terminate composition ong look at contemporary art -- the Museum of Modern Art's brainless and market-oriented "International Survey of Recent Art" -- to shame. Not bad for a 10-year-old.
The Metropolitan Museum's examination of "Van Gogh in Arles" did not travel to Washington, but other focused, scholarly glances backward brought us the best of the year: the memorable lovers of Watteau, the luscious colors of the late Bonnard, the splendid dancers of Degas.
And there was a matchless string of drawings shows at the National Gallery -- from the Albertina, from the Ambrosiana, from Parma and from the private collection of Ian Woodner -- reflecting the National's growing tendency (and ability) to play to connoisseurs, rather than merely to crowds who will stand in line to look at anything. "Orientalists" and "The Folding Image" -- a charming show about the history of folding screens -- were two of the sleepers of the year, along with the joint National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American Art retrospective of American folk artist and portraitist Erastus Salisbury Field.
Unknown riches also emerged from the darkness of storage here this year when the Freer took a first look at its incomparable holdings of 300 works by expatriate American artist James McNeil Whistler, collected by museum founder Charles Lang Freer; and the Library of Congress organized a magnificent survey of 250 of the 5,000 prints purchased with funds given by printmaker/collector Joseph Pennell, shown in "The Pennell Legacy: Two Centuries of Printmaking."
Museum renovations were also big news, especially the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- the most important single art event of the year -- and the reopening of the Phillips Collection here. Appropriately grateful that the Phillips had not dissolved its deficit by building a luxury high-rise apartment house over itself, as was the case in New York, audiences turned out in record-shattering numbers, not only to see the collection after a year of deprivation, but to support it with urgently needed donations.
MOMA will never be the same. But at the Phillips -- apart from the fact that crowds and guards have doubled and greatly needed amenities have been installed -- the Phillips has been left as much intact as any $2 million renovation could have allowed. Most of the changes are invisible; and some of the visible ones are not only tolerable but downright wonderful -- especially the new tearoom on the ground floor.
Considerably less can be said of the yearlong reinstallation and refurbishing job at the National Museum of American Art. Now painted blue on the ground floor, red on the second and white on the third, the museum is not likely to be accused of a lack of dedication to all things American -- including the flag. The new chronological hanging is a great boon to visitors who have never been able to make sense of the place, and the opening up of the long vista on the first floor is a delight. There are also several new acquisitions that suggest a more aggressive collecting stance on the part of new director Charles Eldredge.
But more than one set of critical teeth are bound to be set on edge by the gaudy shades of pink and purplish reds on the second floor, and by the high-tech treatment of the venerable Lincoln Gallery. The use of color in the Hiram Powers room is so distracting that visitors can no longer focus on the plasters -- which are the whole point. The Hudson River landscapes near the director's office do pop out from these authentically colored 19th-century walls -- as do the blindingly bothersome track lights -- but must we be flogged by such lapses in 19th-century taste? A little melted-raspberry-sherbet color goes a long way. Here it will drown you.
Renovations in other museums were chiefly fiscal, as museums continued to stabilize, retrench and plan for future survival. The Corcoran served primarily as a way station for shows organized elsewhere, among them Neoexpressionist paintings from St. Louis and "The Sun King" from New Orleans, along with a traveling Motherwell retrospective. Exactly where the Corcoran itself is going at the moment is not clear, but the museum did make two major acquisitions: an important painting by de Kooning, and Ned Rifkin from the New Museum in New York, who came in the wake of contemporary curator Clair List's departure for Baltimore.
There were other landmark staff changes: the retirement of S. Dillon Ripley as secretary of the Smithsonian; and the retirement of founding Hirshhorn director Abram Lerner as the museum marked its first decade. E.A. Carmean Jr., the first 20th-century curator at the National Gallery of Art, pinned down a $100 million gift of 285 Rothkos from the Rothko Foundaton and left in a blaze of glory to be director of the Fort Worth Art Museum. Janet Flint, the productive and gracious curator of prints and drawings NMAA left to become director of American prints and drawings at Hirschl and Adler in New York.
In the wake of the Phillips reopening, the neighboring Dupont Circle area galleries have taken on a healthy new glow, and have succeeded in forging a collective identity by cooperative, high-profile ventures, such as the current museum-quality show of color photography, "New Color/New Work," now being shared by four dealers.
With only three dealers now remaining on what was once the P Street strip, a lively new scene has spread north and west, with three good new galleries opening this year: Marcia Mateyka, Wallace Wentworth and Jones-Troyer, the last a knowledgeable, first-rate establishment devoted to the best in contemporary photography. With Kathleen Ewing, Gallery 10, Fondo del Sol and Midtown nearby, and Brody's, Addison/Ripley, Middendorf and the P Street galleries just a few blocks away, Dupont Circle has regained critical mass and once again become headquarters for Washington's commercial gallery scene.
Mateyka, bucking the trend toward private dealership, opened in a Victorian townhouse on R Street NW after working out of her Bethesda home for some years, and is one of several dealers -- including Baumgartner, Addison/Ripley, Middendorf, Henri and others -- who have revived a venerable and growing tradition by living over the store.
Meanwhile, the Seventh Street galleries plod on, though not without a certain pallor. The best news there came when the on-again-off-again Gallery Row Project came to life again, with a new backer -- the Carley Capital Group -- which is optimistic about completing the $7 million project. The arley Group has approached the Italian collector of minimal and conceptual art, Count Panza di Biumo, with a proposal that would give part of his collection a permanent home in Gallery Row. The acquisition by the Smithsonian of the 1840s General Post Office opposite the National Portrait Gallery for additional museum space also fired hopes for the growth of the Seventh Street Strip.
The best commercial gallery shows, by the way, reflected the same new interest in connoisseurship seen in Washiington museums. Ramon Osuna's ambitious "The French Neo-Classic and Academic Tradition, 1800-1900" included works (for sale) by such well-known artists as Delacroix, Millet, Ingre s and Bouguereau, and Adams-Davidson's "Marble and Bronze: 100 Years of American Sculpture, 1840-1940" was the first of its scale and scope to be shown on the subject in a Washington gallery. Mickelson's is showing the drawings of Ashcan School artist Robert Henri, and the Bader Gallery had great success with small paintings by Edouard Vuillard.
Hom Gallery's season opener, "Old Master and Modern Prints," 116 museum-quality impressions by Du rer, Rembrandt, Bonnard, Manet and Picasso, was 70 percent sold -- more than half to local collectors, who are reportedly growing in sophistication along with the galleries and museums. If further evidence be needed, Jem Hom is ending the season with a show of illuminated manuscript leaves from medieval books, which he expects to sell well. The National Gallery also paid tribute by beginning the season with a show devoted to one Washington collector -- "Master Drawings From the Woodner Collection" -- and ending with "Master Prints From Washington Collections," which currently celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Washington Print Club, now an amazing 350 strong.
"In the past, we have sold roughly one-third of our things to local clientele," says Hom, but this year, half went to locals. "There has been an increasing number of collectors, and the local collectors are willing to purchase important, high-quality and high-price prints -- which was a rare occurrence in the past. This year we couldn't keep enough good things around."
Photography, as well as prints and drawings, played a growing role in the art world here. And though the Getty Museum paid $20 million to establish Los Angeles as a major center for the study of the history of photography, Washington held on to the title and tasted the possibility of becoming even greater when the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester initiated negotiations to transfer its collections to the Smithsonian. Because of the somewhat belated interest in Eastman House on the part of the citizens of Rochester, that particular gift may still squiggle out of the net, as perhaps it should.
Meanwhile, major gifts and new acquisitions continue to pour into the national museums, with the biggest haul going -- as usual -- to the National Gallery. This year, it acquired 202 old-master and modern drawings from the collection of art historian Julius S. Held (including Piazzetta, Rubens and Eakins) along with the great Rothko Foundation gift, and -- by purchase -- the finest Veronese in its collection. The National Portrait Gallery scored big with Degas' splendid portrait of Mary Cassatt.
With all aspects of the art world here showing new signs of health, it was a good year that promises even better years to come.