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Shutdown puts major Tintoretto exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in jeopardy

The partial government shutdown has affected operations at the National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian museums. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The National Gallery of Art’s signature spring show might become the latest victim of the partial government shutdown now entering its second month.

The exhibition of 16th-century Italian master Tintoretto — one of the most anticipated art shows of the year — is set to open March 10, along with two complementary exhibits on Venetian prints and drawings. Preparations for the shows are weeks behind schedule because of the prolonged shutdown, the longest in history.

“[Gallery leaders] are having internal meetings to discuss the impact of the shutdown on all of the spring shows,” said NGA spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie.

Three exhibitions at Smithsonian museums, which also are supported by federal dollars, have been postponed because of the 31-day shutdown. “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” at the National Portrait Gallery, was scheduled to open March 1; “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths” was set for Feb. 27 at the National Museum of African Art; and Smithsonian Gardens’ popular orchid display was planned for Feb. 2 in the Kogod Courtyard shared by the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

No new dates will be announced until the shutdown is over, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

The shutdown has prevented workers at the National Gallery from preparing the exhibition space for “Tintoretto: Artist of Renaissance Venice,” the first retrospective of the Venetian artist to be presented in North America. The exhibit, which celebrates the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth, was on view in Venice until Jan. 6 and features almost 50 paintings and dozens of drawings.

Two companion shows are scheduled to open the same day: “Drawing in Tintoretto’s Venice,” which closed earlier this month at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, and “Venetian Prints in the Time of Tintoretto,” featuring about 30 prints from the gallery’s collection.

The main exhibition, curated by Tintoretto experts Robert Echols, an independent curator, and Frederick Ilchman, curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, will hang in the galleries that most recently housed “Corot: Women.” After that exhibition closed Dec. 31, furloughed staff members were permitted to take it down (as well as other exhibits that ended later) and pack the art for shipment, Guthrie said. Other employees have been able to accept the shipments for the Tintoretto exhibits from New York and Venice. But before they can be installed, the galleries must be painted, display cases installed and other design elements completed. That work hasn’t been allowed during the shutdown.

“That work would have already started,” Guthrie said.

A critically acclaimed show must come down, so NGA workers are working without pay

The uncertainty also affects visitors who have been looking forward to the Tintoretto retrospective. Washington resident Robert Heiss planned to use the exhibition as the centerpiece of a Williams College alumni weekend this spring.

“It’s really a big deal to have this show in D.C.,” Heiss said. “It seemed like a special exhibition, and unique to North America. Tintoretto was a figure, but not a major one, so there’s some mystery. I had no doubt this was the kind of thing that would appeal to people.”

The potential for delay has Heiss worried about moving ahead with the alumni event. “I don’t know which way to jump,” he said.

Decisions about delaying several other Smithsonian exhibitions on the March and April calendars have not been made, including “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War 1965-1975” and “Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue,” both scheduled to open March 15 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.