The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kaywin Feldman wants the National Gallery to be relevant to everyone. But first they have to come back.

Kaywin Feldman, after her first year as director of the National Gallery of Art, photographed in March. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Kaywin Feldman spent most of her first year as director of the National Gallery of Art devising an audience-first strategy that focuses attention and resources on understanding the Washington museum’s visitors.

Then in March, at the start of her second year, the visitors were gone and the museum was shuttered to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Three months later, the first woman to run the national museum feels a sense of urgency to reopen fully and to provide a sanctuary for a weary public. The museum’s sculpture garden was the first to come back (on June 20); Feldman and her staff are preparing to welcome visitors to the ground floor galleries of the West Building starting the third week of July.

But even when visitors finally return, it won’t be as it was before.

“All of us are getting used to a new normal,” Feldman said, noting that for the first time in its history, the gallery will distribute free timed passes to limit attendance to about 500 a day. It will also require visitors to wear masks.

These changes, coupled with the uncertain effect of covid-19 on consumer behavior, will have long-lasting implications for the institution and Feldman’s plans to remake it.

“For the next two years, our audience isn’t going to be typical, certainly not the level of tourists,” she said. “We’re going to be in this phase, the recovery phase, the period in between reopening and a vaccine, when people are going to be nervous. We might have to close again. Our core audience might not want to come back.”

A survey done in February showed that about 70 percent of that month’s visitors identified as white, a majority were 55 to 75 years old, and half lived in the Washington metropolitan area. Annual attendance is about 4.5 million.

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Even during the shutdown, while most of the staff works remotely, Feldman has arrived at the museum’s I.M. Pei-designed East Building every morning at 7:3o, making her way to her seventh-floor office. An Ed Ruscha painting, “I think I’ll …,” previously on loan to the Obama White House, hangs on one wall; another boasts floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Capitol. From this “happy place,” she relies on what one curator described as her “insistently positive” outlook to navigate the short-term recovery from the pandemic. She’s also focused on transforming the museum into an institution that better represents the nation and addresses its wide-ranging, and complex, concerns.

Feldman did not lay off or furlough any employees this spring, due in part to the museum’s generous federal subsidy (Congress provides about three-quarters of its $216 million annual operating budget), which pays the salaries of most of its employees. Its free admission policy also limited revenue losses related to its closure. But the pandemic has created some big challenges. A new visitor survey was temporarily derailed, and the hiring of critical audience and digital positions has been stalled. A strategic plan — expected to be completed and approved this fall — will be the foundation of a course correction, but its specifics remain under wraps.

There are hints about the future, however. The first exhibition conceived during Feldman’s tenure will be “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” a broad look at the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies through 150 works of art from the 16th century to the present. First organized by the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 2018, the exhibition is a collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and will open in Washington in the spring of 2022.

The recent acquisition of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s “I See Red: Target” is another milestone. The work is the first painting by a Native American artist to enter the museum’s collection.

Feldman describes the acquisition in patriotic terms.

“The staff and I take very seriously our public mission and the mandate to serve the nation,” she said. “In order to serve the nation in its broadest sense, we have to attract and reflect [its] diversity.”

The Smith acquisition was made possible by NGA president Mitchell Rales and his wife, Emily Wei Rales (founders of Glenstone). The work was installed in the Pop Art gallery earlier this spring.

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“I really want to stress that it’s not at the exclusion of everything else. It’s not like you drop everything to go run in a new direction,” Feldman said. “We are absolutely committed to our European Old Masters collection. It’s growing, and we continue to do important groundbreaking research and exhibitions on that part of the collection. So it remains an absolute focus for us.”

But it won’t be the sole focus.

“I don’t give a public speech anywhere without talking about the fact that American demographics are changing. It’s predicted that by around 2043, America will be majority people of color. And already the majority of Americans 15 years old and younger are people of color,” she said. “So it’s about doing what we do currently, doing it so well, and adding a more robust spectrum of artists.”

The push toward diversity takes on an urgency amid recent incidents of police brutality and resulting racial unrest. Feldman, who left Minneapolis last year after 11 years as director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, said it has been especially sad to witness the suffering in her former home. She described the protests and calls for reform as a “pivotal moment for museums.”

“We are spending a lot of time, having a lot of conversations about the ways we as art museums can come to terms with our past and work to dismantle institutionalized racism,” she said, noting that she’s on weekly calls with colleagues from around the country. She’s taking a dual approach, working to create a better internal environment, with greater awareness of implicit bias, and thinking about how to “show a greater commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion externally, through programs, exhibitions and collecting.”

Steven Nelson, the gallery’s newly appointed dean of the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and co-curator of the “Afro-Atlantic Histories” show, predicted Feldman’s inclusive approach will be her legacy.

“It’s very hard. It takes money and desire,” he said. “The planets are lining up so those things are possible.”

Feldman is confident the effort will attract support. “[Donors] give to people, and they give to big ideas,” she said.

Most of Feldman’s first-year accomplishments have been invisible to the public. She saw insufficient diversity in the management structure and recruited two women and a black man for senior positions, dramatically changing what had been a predominantly old white male senior cabinet. She engaged a firm to work on the gallery’s brand, which will be key to increased signage and visitor guides, and she entered into a partnership with the Smithsonian for much-needed storage space. The shared storage will reduce the strain on the gallery’s budget and open several prominent galleries in the West Building that have been used to stow artworks for almost a decade. She also purchased high-tech screening machines for the museum’s entrances, equipment that security personnel have been requesting for years.

Feldman is comfortable with her first-year progress, saying she’s learned that “National Gallery time” is slow, which could be because time is not money. In addition to its federal subsidy, the NGA has the luxury of a $950 million endowment that supports exhibitions and acquisitions of art, which are not part of the operational budget.

The governing board is both supportive and reflective of the change that Feldman is championing. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a California-based educator and philanthropist, joined this spring, while Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, became the board’s first African American member earlier this year.

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“I’d like to tell you profound change has taken place. It hasn’t. But profound change is coming,” said Rales, who is one of the gallery’s nine trustees in addition to being president. “We’re not trying to get a revolution. We’re trying to create an evolution.”

Feldman embarked on a “listening tour” soon after arriving in March 2019. She heard from almost 1,000 employees in 77 meetings, where she repeatedly asked questions — Why do you work at the NGA? What does the institution stand for? What should never change? — and took copious notes. Employees said the tone of the sessions was welcoming, and most did not include re-airing of past grievances related to harassment, retaliation and low morale.

Feldman studied the museum’s history, too, reading “everything I can get my hands on” about the priorities and goals of its previous four leaders.

“Learning our history has been really impactful for me, particularly at this moment, as we’re thinking about who we are today and who we will be in the future,” she said.

Feldman quoted Paul Mellon’s address at the museum’s opening on March 17, 1941. Speaking on behalf of his father, Andrew, who donated his art collection and the funds for the original John Russell Pope-designed building, Paul Mellon said it was the family’s hope “that the National Gallery would become not a static but a living institution, growing in usefulness and importance to artists, scholars and the general public.”

“I’m profoundly moved by Mr. Mellon’s identification of those three audiences,” Feldman said after reciting Mellon’s words from memory.

There is much to celebrate about the gallery, she added. Early data from the audience survey, for example, shows the majority of respondents reported visiting the museum to see the permanent collection, a finding she described as “a museum director’s dream.”

“We don’t have to do populist shows to bring people here. They’re coming to see the collection,” she said. “Visitors want us to make sense of the collection. We are interested in having a space where we can bring works of art across the collection together and which could provide a sort of experimental lab.”

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A still-untitled exhibition, known internally as “Women 2020,” is an example of this approach. The proposal grew organically from curators who wanted to use the centennial of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, to address the scarcity of female artists in the museum’s renowned holdings.

“It’s not a simple answer to [the question] ‘Why aren’t there women artists in the West Building of the National Gallery?’ We’re at the mercy of history, and it’s a complex history,” she said, referring to the mostly pre-20th-century galleries. “We’re looking at organizing each room by decade and to look at how much work by women artists was acquired in each decade, and what types of works were acquired.”

Applying a contemporary lens to the historic collection is a hallmark of Feldman’s work, said Olga Viso, a fellow in residence at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation who is the former director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

“If you look at Kaywin’s track record of 10 years at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, there was a huge emphasis on building attendance. It was a sleepy place, and her time brought it to life again. She changed the energy in a profound way,” Viso said. The museum’s 2017 attendance was 890,000, more than double the 426,000 visitors it logged in 2007.

Some NGA staff worry that Feldman’s focus on modern and contemporary art will be at the detriment of its allegiance to the Old Masters, despite her statements to the contrary. The cancellation of a long-planned Caravaggio exhibition has stoked these fears. Feldman said the decision was made to reduce the gallery’s exhibition budget (it was the only upcoming show that did not have a partner to share costs) and because a main painting “looked like it would not be able to travel” to the gallery. “We’ve explained that,” she said in response to questions about whether the staff understood the decision. “People hear what they want.”

Mary Morton, curator and head of the Department of French Paintings, said such worries are unfounded. The attention given to the Smith work — the only acquisition Feldman mentioned at a March congressional budget hearing — does not detract from other recent additions. The large-scale “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler,” by Edwin Landseer and Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson’s “Coriolanus Taking Leave of his Family” are equally transformative, Morton said.

“Curators are jealous creatures. I’d be more nervous if I didn’t think our director really understands our scholarship,” Morton said.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the National Gallery of Art’s annual operating budget as $175 million. This version has been updated.)