The Greek delegation is not pleased. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, in Washington for official business, planned to attend to the opening reception on Wednesday of “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” scheduled to open Oct. 6 at the National Gallery of Art.
Add that to the list of failed plans in Washington. The opening party was canceled, and the Prime Minister will go home without seeing the exhibition, one organized in collaboration with the Benaki Museum of Athens. A Greek embassy official noted dryly that the IMF was open during Washington’s shutdown: Samaras still met with Christine Lagarde.
The “Byzantium” opening wasn’t the only after-hours event canceled at the Gallery. Adrienne Arsht, the philanthropist who underwrote “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music” planned to throw a party at the Gallery for the closing of the blockbuster exhibition on Thursday. She is still hopeful the government will open.
“I invited my friends to say goodbye to Serge, to have time to really go through the exhibit,” Arsht said. “If the government opens again, we will go forward with the viewing. We may have to get food from Costco, but everyone like Oreos.”
The shutdown caused 800,000 employees to go home. Washington’s museums, memorials and agencies were shuttered, with some economists predicting up to $200 million dollar a day loss for the District. But the individual effects — the disappointing cancellations of private art viewings or changes to a student’s Friday classes — had a ripple effect through Washington, on large and small scales. Indeed, e-mails about cancellations to public programming and educational programs were the sob stories of the day, the collateral damage that affects philanthropists and elementary school students alike.
Federally funded museums often become focal points during government shutdowns. The National Gallery was the epicenter of the government shutdown 17 years ago, when its once-in-a-lifetime Johannes Vermeer exhibit was closed off to the public for 19 days. Democrats held press conferences decrying the closure in front of the Gallery. The Museum dipped into trust funds to open its doors to crowds.
This time, the National Gallery’s closure is affecting public schools, as well. In addition to its average 12,000 visitors a day, eight school tours will be canceled should the shutdown continue. Gallery instructors will not be allowed to visit fourth graders at Wheatley Education Campus to give a lesson in art history as part of the Gallery’s “Art around the Corner” program.
But not all work stops when the government shutdown starts. The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is spending this week receiving many of the 133 objects for its upcoming, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” With museums in Jodhpur, London and Zurich lending works for the exhibition, the Smithsonian staff must to be there to ensure the art’s safe arrival and installation.
“Art couriers and the artwork are coming in this week,” said Allison Peck, spokeswoman for the Sackler Gallery. “We have the staff in place to receive the art and make sure that the art is cared for so the exhibition can open as scheduled.”
During the shutdown, about 600 of Smithsonian employees are deemed essential, with security being one of the main priorities. Since some of the Smithsonian personnel are paid from private funds, others are continuing to answer phones in press offices or feed the animals at the National Zoo. And though “shutdown” sounds apocalyptic, no lights went out at museums on Tuesday. Temperature-controls were not abandoned.
If there’s a silver lining for Washington museums, it’s that private museums, which are often at a disadvantage with those who flock to free ones, are open and accepting displaced visitors. Caroline Winslow, a student at George Washington University tweeted, “The government shutdown means my Friday class at the National Gallery might have to be held at the Corcoran instead.”
The Corcoran Gallery of Art responded to her quickly: “While a shutdown would be unfortunate — happy to have you!”
Many of Washington’s private museums are offering free admission. The Phillips Collection offered free admission from Tuesday to Friday. The National Building Museum and The National Museum of Women in the Arts offered free admission during the shutdown to any furloughed government employees. Amy Mannarino, spokeswoman for National Museum of Women in the Arts, said that by 1 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 federal employees had already shown up to tour the exhibitions.
“We always want to be helpful to our community during this difficult time period,” Mannarino said. “We want people to come explore the museum, though this probably isn’t the time federal employees want to be doing it.”