As the great American museum boom roared on in 1987, with the opening of the Menil in Houston, the Terra in Chicago and the Wallace Wing for 20th-century art at the Met in New York, Washington acquired three new art museums -- two underground, one under fire.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian and Near Eastern Art and the National Museum of African Art opened on the Mall, 60 feet beneath the Enid A. Haupt Garden, a work of art itself. The National Museum of Women in the Arts -- which opened with 80,000 members but no clearly defined program -- set up shop in the lavishly renovated former Masonic Temple downtown. It provided the major art museum controversy of the year -- unless you count the Wyeth-Helga debacle at the National Gallery of Art.
Whole collections of art continued pouring into the city's public and private showcases, topped by 1,000 works from Arthur Sackler, who before his death also gave the new museum his name and $4 million. The National Gallery officially received Armand Hammer's great old-master drawings collection this year -- plus $1.1 million in cash to acquire a rare Raphael cartoon. It also made an innovative deal -- described as a "blueprint" -- with Maryland collectors and horse breeders Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, which should eventually bring the Meyerhoff collection of recent American art under National Gallery control.
The National Museum of American Art filled a major gap in its collection with 113 abstract works given by Patricia and Phillip Frost of Florida. It also acquired, partially by gift, partially by purchase, the greatHemphill collection of American folk art, now being sneak-previewed in the NMAA lobby. The Hirshhorn received one of its largest gifts ever, from the estate of former Hirshhorn docent Marion Ring. It includes important paintings by Morandi, Stuart Davis, Milton Avery and Adolph Gottlieb, along with a sculpture by Ernst Barlach.
Innumerable gifts of a more modest sort also flowed in -- among them a fabric sculpture by Harmony Hammond of New York and a gift from comedian Lily Tomlin to the Women's Museum, which also received 130 photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.
That institution -- shaky from the start on content -- has been strong on fund-raising but short on real direction and program ideas. Critics, many of them women, have continued to question the wisdom of its energetic money-raising with no clearly defined goal in view. The museum shot itself in the foot with its current exhibition of supreme irrelevancy, titled "Chalchihuitls: Pre-Columbian Jade and Other Sacred Stones."
Elsewhere, good exhibitions proliferated in almost too rapid succession, the strongest being "Matisse in Nice" at the National Gallery, "Lucian Freud" at the Hirshhorn and "Jacob Lawrence," which drew the biggest crowds to the Phillips Collection since its Bonnard show in 1984.
The limitations and strengths of two Washington Color painters, Gene Davis and Morris Louis, were revealed (and Davis' reputation advanced) in definitive retrospectives here. Several sculpture shows accurately reflected the wealth of recent sculptural achievement, notably the Patsy and Raymond Nasher Collection (extended through Feb. 15 at the National Gallery) and Nancy Graves, Joel Shapiro and "A Quiet Revolution: British Sculpture Since 1965" (through Jan. 10), all at the Hirshhorn. The Hirshhorn clearly took the lead this year in bringing significant contemporary art to Washington.
"Georgia O'Keeffe," which has been both surprising for its originality and disappointing for its lack of thoroughness, is drawing capacity crowds at the National Gallery. The crowds are reported moving "unusually slowly" through the exhibition, suggesting that they're actually looking at the paintings -- apparently something of a novelty. An unusual number of shows focused on women artists, among them Berthe Morisot and photographers Julia Margaret Cameron and Louise Dahl-Wolfe.
But O'Keeffe fit into another exhibition trend as well: the increased interest in American modernists from the early decades of this century, especially the circle around photographer-dealer Alfred Stieglitz. There were solo shows of Charles Demuth, photographer Eliot Porter (with good new books about each), John Marin and William Merritt Chase, who taught O'Keeffe and many of her contemporaries. Middendorf Gallery organized a memorable photographic show last May, "From 291 to An American Place," which evoked the look of Stieglitz's various galleries. Topping off the era, the Hirshhorn wound up the year with "The New Spirit: Artist-Organizers of the Armory Show," a look at the first American blockbuster exhibition, which opened just 75 years ago, and changed the course of American art.
Though Andrew Wyeth's outrageously hyped "Helga" drawings attracted the year's largest crowds so far, there was, in fact, a good Wyeth show in Washington this year -- "An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art," which drew more than 100,000 paying visitors to the Corcoran. The number was minuscule compared with "Helga's" audience of a more than a half-million, but at least visitors to the Corcoran went away happy. There was almost universal disappointment -- and considerable anger -- among "Helga" visitors, many of whom felt, justifiably, that they had been duped by an institution they'd learned to trust. What the National Gallery got from all this -- apart from ill will and a drubbing in the press -- was the first serious chink in its shining armor, its first unarguable qualitative disaster.
The Corcoran, by the way -- despite a lame-duck director (Michael Botwinick resigned last Christmas) managed to stay on an even keel in 1987 with the help of acting director Ed Nygren and good shows that included a strong 40th Biennial and the current survey of contemporary Hispanic art in the United States (through Jan. 17). A new director, Christina Orr-Cahall, was appointed last fall and will take over in March. A new dean of the Corcoran School of Art has just been appointed: Bruce Yenawine, currently president of Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Mass. He will also arrive in March.
Buying and Selling It was a year in which prices for paintings by van Gogh left previous records in the dust. First, his "Sunflowers" went for $39.9 million; then his "Irises" went for $53.9 million, the highest known price ever paid for a work of art anywhere and approaching the $73.2 million it cost the Smithsonian to build its two new museums. Just one year earlier, a Rembrandt had brought what was then an astonishing price of $10.3 million.
But while art prices got bigger, a backlash began whispering "smaller, smaller" -- loudly enough to make the Whitney and Guggenheim museums scale back the size of their proposed additions. The Hirshhorn Museum, among others, acted to bring the art experience back down to human scale, which was becoming all but lost. There was a sense that the Lucian Freud show had been such a success because it made visitors feel something.
Other Washington museums continued to scale down, trim back, shore up and find new ways to guarantee future purchasing power and -- in some cases -- survival. With a growing base of support, the Phillips Collection began phase two of its renovations, remaining open while the annex is transformed. The Corcoran announced it would stay solvent by building in its back yard an income-producing office building designed by Hartman & Cox.
At the Hirshhorn and the National Museum of American Art, careful, selective deaccessioning (selling) works that no longer had a place in newly focused collections became the major tool for raising purchase funds. In this respect, the inflated art market proved to be a bonanza, bringing record prices for works sold.
The income from these sales has gone exclusively into endowment-purchase funds and, thus far, has been well spent. The NMAA raised $2.7 million for calendar year 1987 by selling, among other things, a 17th-century Italian painting by Guercino to the Getty Museum for $1.45 million. About 500 Japanese and European prints were also auctioned at Weschler's last fall. Funds for the Hemphill purchase came largely from the sale of the Guercino, says NMAA Director Charles Eldredge.
The Hirshhorn Museum added a like sum to its endowment-purchase fund this year through the careful selling off of redundant works. Among them was a painting by Nicolas de Stael that brought a record $451,000. Works by Fritz Glarner and Alexander Calder were also sold.
"Refining the collection will take a long time," says Hirshhorn Director James Demetrion. "It is partly a case of bringing it up to date." This year, among other things, the Hirshhorn used deaccessioning funds to purchase an early sculpture by Jasper Johns, a 1919 Man Ray spray painting, and works by Philip Guston, Martin Puryear, Joel Shapiro and Lucian Freud, whose "My Portrait, 1986," should please his new American fans.
Sadly, the Phillips Collection was also forced to sell at auction its only prewar cubist painting by Georges Braque. The $3 million it brought has gone into a restricted fund, named for the painting's donor Katherine S. Dreier. The interest will provide much-needed support for curatorial projects.
On the subject of money, the Phillips has found that moving its sales desk into the original building has vastly increased sales. Located at ground level, it can now be reached directly from an entrance on Q Street, which also leads to the cafe'.
Scholarly Advances Advancing scholarship -- as well as acquiring and exhibiting art -- is another growth area in Washington's museums, and the Phillips has taken an important step forward in the hiring of noted British art historian and artist Sir Lawrence Gowing as curatorial chairman.
The NMAA also continues to expand its scholarly potential, and last spring it launched an unusually lively and attractive new quarterly publication, Smithsonian Studies in American Art, which reports on new research in all aspects of American creative activity, from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to the film "Casablanca."
Another NMAA venture will trade brain power for cash: For a share of royalties, NMAA is advising publisher Harry N. Abrams on publication of 20 monographs in the Library of American Art series, which focuses on America's foremost artists, from colonial times to the present. Two books in the series -- "Whistler" by John Walker and "Edward Hopper" by Robert Hobbs -- were released this year.
Under Eldredge's direction, the Renwick has not only rededicated itself to its original purpose of showing and collecting American design and crafts, it has also given the study of these subjects, at last, the status for which their supporters have been clamoring. The first Renwick Fellowship will be awarded next spring, underwritten by the Renwick Alliance.
The Sackler, which has a very ambitious education program planned for all levels, has launched Asian Art, a new quarterly written by scholars but for a general audience. It is by Oxford University Press in cooperation with the Sackler.
The Art List Double-Take of the Year: A second, more comprehending look at minimal and postminimal artists, who showed up frequently in Washington and Baltimore solos this year. Among them were Sol Lewitt, Robert Mangold, Ellsworth Kelly, Joel Shapiro, Jackie Ferrara and Scott Burton.
Color of the Year: Black, seen with particular effect in the work of Anselm Kiefer, Donald Sultan, and in a show at Middendorf titled "En Grisaille," which resulted in the handsomest commercial gallery catalogue of the year.
Losses: Andy Warhol, Arthur M. Sackler, Leon Berkowitz and Donald W. Thalacker, longtime head of GSA's art in architecture program.
Gains Among the Losses: The world lost Andy Warhol, but rights to his name and some images were licensed by his estate to the agent who handled "Cabbage Patch" dolls. It is expected that billions in sales will result and accrue to the Andy Warhol Foundation. His collection will be auctioned in the spring.
Up and thus coming: Oriental art, featured not only at the new Sackler Gallery but in the new "Arts of Japan" galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, and in a new building now under construction at the Los Angeles County Museum.
Trends: The institutionalization of the avant-garde. The Long Island home where Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived and worked has been given historic landmark status -- a first for a 20th-century American artist's house.
Most Creative Circumvention of a Will: The Sackler Gallery, which ended up underground at least in part to avoid limits placed on expanding, borrowing and lending in the will of Charles Lang Freer.
No Longer a Bad Word: Deaccessioning.
Greediest Collectors of the Year: Jeffrey Levitt, Ivan Boesky.
Most Unusual Act of Courtesy: The National Gallery's grateful acknowledgement, extended in its O'Keeffe catalogue, to former New York art dealer Andrew Crispo, now serving seven years for tax evasion at the Otisville Correctional Facility in New York State.
Most Unenviable Capital Gains Liability: John Whitney Payson, seller of van Gogh's "Irises."
Washington Dealer-Collectors of the Year: Phil Desind of Capricorn Gallery, whose collection of realist paintings and drawings was shown at the Butler Art Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, and Betty and Douglas Duffy of the Bethesda Art Gallery, whose collection of American master prints is currently being circulated to museums around the country.
Next Washington Museum: Possibly the Museum of the American Indian. Will its trustees decide to move their museum to Washington? Discussions are still underway.
Credit Longest Overdue: To Warren Robbins, whose prescient founding of the National Museum of African Art more than 20 years ago was recognized with the opening of the museum's new home on the Mall.
Biggest (Literally) Art Book of the Year: "Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers," published by Nicholas Callaway and Alfred Knopf. Six pounds, 13 1/2 by 16 inches -- as large as some of O'Keeffe's paintings themselves.