The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The government pays tens of thousands of dollars for portraits of high officials. Should it?

Politicians have long debated whether the federal government should subsidize public art. But should it pay tens of thousands of dollars for an oil painting of Jack Lew? That’s the question Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) is asking. In turn, he’s tackling one of Washington’s long-held artistic traditions — the right of agency directors to have their likenesses recreated on canvas.

The Eliminating Government-Funded Oil-Painting Act, alternatively titled “The EGO Act” would prohibit the use of federal dollars to pay for official portraits of members of Congress, heads of executive agencies or directors of offices in the executive branch. Cassidy proposed the bill in late April after reports surfaced that the Environmental Protection Agency spent $38,350 on an oil on canvas portrait of former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. Reports from the Washington Times and ABC News indicated that the Obama administration had spent nearly $400,000 on portraits of agency directors and Cabinet secretaries since 2010. Cassidy, who was elected to Congress in 2009, only recently learned of the costs of oil paintings.

“It’s the sort of thing that just gnaws at you,” Cassidy said. “It never dawns on you how these portraits are funded. If we’re cannibalizing funding from important programs or increasing taxes to pay for such vanity, it sticks with you.”

Along with his argument that the cost of portraiture is too high—most federally-funded portraits cost between $20,000 and $50,000 — Cassidy says that much of this art remains in private offices, unavailable for public viewing.

“These are pieces that are tucked away,” Cassidy added. “They’re not funding for the arts, but for the art piece, for the subject to put in the agency.”

While this is appears to be the first time a member of Congress has proposed a bill to ban the practice, outrage over federally-funded portraits isn’t exactly new. Over the years, Republicans and Democrats have taken aim at the pricey tradition during recessions and times of fiscal uncertainty. In 1977, Bert Lance, then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, asked former President Jimmy Carter to end what he called “an expensive tradition.” Carter agreed, calling portraits a “luxury.” At the time, The Washington Post reported that the portraits were costing “anywhere from $5000 to $15000, depending on the size of the painting, the framing and the artist.” Almost 30 years later, The Post examined the cost of 30 portraits, noting that the cost of each ranged from between $7,500 to $50,000 depending on the artist and the size of the painting.

The great irony of federally-funded portraiture is that Smithsonian museums rarely benefit from it. Federally-funded museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, are not permitted to use federal appropriations for acquisitions. In fact, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled portraits of former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and Colin Powell in 2006 and 2012, respectively, which were purchased with private funds (and likely cost more than $50,000, though the gallery has never released the cost of the commissions.)

Another quirk of these portraits is that art experts don’t necessarily have to weigh in on the selection of the artist. Agencies sometimes even let the subject pick the artist, which raises some pretty sensitive questions about the tastes of bureaucrats. Do we trust the good people of the Department of the Interior to know great art when they see it?

Defenders of official portraiture might argue that art isn’t the point of these fine portraits. The point is to maintain tradition while propping up an art form that, frankly, needs some extra help. Portraiture artists have long welcomed federal funding to help support their craft. In fact, the federal government is one of the few institutions that still invests in this classic style of portraiture. The uber-rich who used to invest in traditional oil-on-canvas portraiture have since turned to Pollock and Basquiat to decorate their walls. Also, in fairness to the agencies, some of the more magnanimous ones have loaned their fine works to the National Portrait Gallery for exhibitions. And with art digitization becoming the norm, the public can Google the official portraits of secretaries past. (See Robert Reich and Robert Gates here!)

Cassidy is optimistic that the bill will pass, though all 12 co-sponsors are Republican and to be enacted it would need to make it through the Democratically-controlled Senate as well.

If that happens, the walls of Washington’s agencies might become a little barer — unless, of course, they follow the advice of Jimmy Carter and display themselves via that modern, less expensive art form — photography.