By Nicole Lewis
As far as the press materials go, the imminent, massive renovation of the Old Patent Building is about updating the heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing systems, which haven't been touched in more than 30 years. But underneath the $60 million project--slated for completion three years from now--is a tug for space between the two Smithsonian museums that have shared the historic building since 1968--the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art. The last day to visit the museums is Jan. 3.
Since the two institutions could not agree on a new configuration for the renovated building during talks over the past year, outgoing Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman decided last week on a plan that neither museum is satisfied with. "The decision needed to be made so that we could get on with the design," Smithsonian Provost Dennis O'Connor said. "Will they [the museums] be overwhelmingly happy? No, but I think they will understand the decision and its implication."
"It's not necessarily possible for everyone's fondest hopes to be totally fulfilled, but we are committed to making this great landmark building one of the showcases for American culture in this city," said NMAA Director Elizabeth Broun, who at one point suggested some kind of merger of the two museums. That idea was opposed by Portrait Gallery Director Alan Fern and rejected by Heyman.
Fern is also disappointed by the new plan. "I don't think it's awfully good for the National Portrait Gallery as it presents considerable difficulties for the articulation and presentation of our collection," he said. He would have liked to see the amount of gallery space currently allotted to each museum stay the same; instead, under the new arrangement the Portrait Gallery is losing 4 percent of its space.
Also, after renovation the museums will share the main building's entrance at Eighth and F streets NW, as well as the Rotunda and the Great Hall, spaces often used for receptions. Other common areas include an expanded cafeteria, storage and administrative offices. In a memo to both museum directors, Heyman stated that the Portrait Gallery will have exclusive use of 21,200 square feet of space and the Museum of American Art will have 62,400. These numbers include office space in the Old Patent Building as well as in the nearby Victor Building that the Smithsonian purchased for the staffs of both museums.
The NMAA collection is more than twice the size of the Portrait Gallery's holdings. O'Connor says that the Museum of American Art has more large three-dimensional works that need additional display room. When the building opened, the Portrait Gallery had approximately 630 objects in its collection and the NMAA had about 11,400. Now the Portrait Gallery owns approximately 18,150 objects and its roommate has approximately 37,900.
Come January, a select number of objects from both museums will go on tour. NMAA curators have devised eight themed exhibits that will travel to more than 70 museums over the next three years in a "Treasures to Go" tour. The Portrait Gallery has also organized four new exhibits from its permanent collection that will travel to museums in the United States, Europe and Japan.
But first the artworks have to be ready to go on the road. At a recent NMAA open house, Quentin Rankin, a conservator of paintings, explained his exacting job of making sure each work looks its best. Almost all of the 500 exhibition objects needed some sort of attention, ranging from small matters such as a new frame to more intricate work, such as retouching.
Jim Sousa, assistant collections manager for the Museum of American Art, has also been busy preparing for the temporary closing. From his desk in a garret of the building, Sousa is making sure that all of those 37,900 works are stored safely as well as keeping track of where they are. "Our motto is, 'If we don't know where it is, it isn't here,' " he said. The artworks, which are grouped by period and medium, are currently housed in nine rooms on site and also in off-site storage. The new building plans call for an "open" storage facility where half the collection, locked under plexiglass, will be on view to scholars and the public.
But some paintings and sculptures are just too big to store easily, so the NMAA offered to lend many of its larger works to other institutions. About 25 of them found homes, and works started disappearing from the museum last April.
Thomas Hart Benton's 20-foot-long painting "Achelous and Hercules" almost slipped through the cracks. Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum requested it, then discovered only a few months ago that it had nowhere to hang it. Fortunately, Norfolk's Chrysler Museum agreed to give the painting a temporary home. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg will borrow James Hampton's 180-object aluminum foil sculpture, "The Throne of the Third Heaven."
Among a stack of crates waiting to be shipped from the Great Hall--where Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball--lie the pieces of a painted steel Calder sculpture getting a quick touch-up. In three or more years, the crates will be back, in time for their contents to be reinstalled in the refurbished museum, bigger and better climate-controlled than before.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company