D.C. museums: political? Doesn't matter

Liv Burns, Isabel Pellegrino
March 15, 2018

In the left wing of the National Portrait Gallery, a young Subway fast-food worker named Kean peered over the crowd on a Saturday afternoon in March. Tufts of red hair framed his green-trimmed visor, pushing it into the position of a king’s crown.

But Kean was not on his lunch break. He was the art himself.

 Left:  Kean, Subway Sandwich Artist  by Shauna Frischkorn. Right:  Pat Lyon at the Forge  by John Neagle.  Shauna Frischkorn; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Left: Kean, Subway Sandwich Artist by Shauna Frischkorn. Right: Pat Lyon at the Forge by John Neagle.

Shauna Frischkorn; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

In a gallery fit for portraits of presidents, first ladies and suffragists, curators made way for “Kean: Subway Sandwich Artist,” an effort by the museum to bring American workers out of anonymity. Amid the bright white light, classical architecture and gold frames, Subway meets nobility.

“There’s all of these really famous, glamorous kinds of people in the Portrait Gallery, and there’s hardly ever real people in the Portrait Gallery, everyday people,” said photographer Shauna Frischkorn, the artist behind Kean’s portrait. “And so, for them, it was a giant step forward into curating shows that are about social issues and national issues.”

But public art museums, particularly the National Portrait Gallery, have come under heightened scrutiny in recent months for drawing social and political issues into federally funded exhibitions. In a country divided over issues of race, constitutional rights, and truth in the media, the arts face an identity crisis unlike ever before.

For hundreds of years, social issues have been the focal point of great works of art, from symbolism in Renaissance portraiture to 20th century pop art on consumer culture.

In the contemporary art world, some artists say their work should direct social discussion while others say the arts have a primarily visual component, not to be compromised by political statements.

“I think the danger is that the visual part of art gets lost in the political narrative. I feel art has become more shock and awe and self indulgent,” said Brooklyn-based painter Gustave Blache III. “Hopefully the pendulum will swing back to visual expressions that aren’t all hell bent on political narratives.”

The debate comes at a time when museums face unprecedented cuts in federal arts funding and increased visibility through social media, forcing curators and artists to make careful decisions about what kind of art and artists they choose to highlight to national audiences.

Experts’ answer to the current role of art remains unclear, but one thing is for sure: artists and museum officials are attempting to appeal to national audiences while tackling social issues, sticking to tradition or pursuing a hybrid of the two.

“Hopefully the pendulum will swing back to visual expressions that aren’t all hell bent on political narratives.” - Brooklyn-based painter Gustave Blache III.

“With public museums, you probably have to tread somewhat lightly, they can’t be as heavy handed as… some place that charges admission that can be a lot more heavy handed with their ideology,” said Frickshorn on exhibitions subsidized by federal funds. “They need to please everyone, and not just one sector of the population, so they have to be more careful.”

With more than 10 Smithsonian museums across Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital puts the controversy over the politics of art front and center. The result of curators and artists efforts can be seen in museums across the city, from the public’s attendance to an exhibition on American workers at the NPG to criticism over a postponed projection of a gun at the Hirshhorn Museum last month.

Washington, D.C. has the highest per capita arts attendance rate in the nation, according to a 2017 study by the University of Pennsylvania. The National Portrait Gallery’s visitor log showed more than 1.3 million visitors, domestic and international, to the museum last year.

One sunny Saturday in March, a gallery security guard said he felt like nearly 15,000 had come through the space by mid-noon. Although visitor logs show that 3,000 people visit the museum daily, the streams of children, parents, students and tourists produce enough sound for a small city.

“The Sweat of Their Faces: Portraying American Workers,” the exhibit featuring Kean, opened last November, and features about  75 pieces depicting American labor over the past few centuries. Kim Sajet, the director of the gallery, said in the collection’s catalogue that audiences should reflect on the “labor of the workers from the past epochs who have been brought out of anonymity” by American artists.

Despite Sajet’s intentions, visitors strolled quickly through the exhibit on their way to the Obama portraits. Those who remained lingered only a few seconds to quickly scan each piece – pieces that ranged from an 18th century watercolor of slaves to a 20th century 3D-printed janitor’s cart.

“Can we go see people I actually recognize?” said one visitor, throwing her hands up.

“Where’s Obama? We could go live in a world where Obama’s still president,” said another.

“Do you think that’s an easy job or a hard job?” one woman asked two young girls, pointing to photographer Sam Comen’s image of workers poling for almonds in California.

“Hard!” they responded in unison, the lights on their sneakers flashing as they stomped the ground.

Some artists like Frischkorn, who wanted to raise awareness about the low wages paid to fast-food employees, said she feels that the arts should educate the public on significant social and political issues.

“It has always kind of been the museum’s role to decide what … is important, then to show that to the public and then that becomes what we think is important.” said Frischkorn. “It has the role of showing us what is new, what’s important, what’s happening.”

Other artists said that while social commentary is critical, there is value in art for art’s sake.  Gustave Blache III, the painter of a series of images depicting famous New-Orleans chef and author Leah Chase, fears the important visual component of art can get lost in a political haze.

“When every artist’s work revolves around social commentary… eventually the commentary loses its sting,” Blache said. “It can become a fad or a shtick. I also find that the visual component, or even the aesthetic, is sacrificed even more and more for the attention of a political statement.”

Disagreement on social commentary’s place in the arts is not limited to artists and curators.

Washingtonian Gary Buff, 69, has been to the Smithsonian’s Art and Portrait Gallery dozens of times since he first moved to D.C. in 1970. A self-described seasoned art consumer, Buff said he generally doesn’t see a correlation between the political and the artistic. This exhibition was no different.

“This exhibition is a really interesting and varied depiction of American workers,” Buff said, “but I don’t see it as representative of a national dialogue. I see it as representing different periods of work in America.”

Dr. Don Bercuson, a 68-year-old Floridian, disagreed. Bercuson said there is a statement behind an exhibition filled with depictions of American laborers of all types.

“The exhibition and this photograph humanize people who you don’t think of. People are people, we are all important. This makes anonymous people people,” Bercuson said.

On that sunny Saturday afternoon, the stress of that dialogue was lost on most museum-goers.

Among the commemoration of American workers, work evaded the visitors entirely – couples kissed, tourists took selfies, children napped on benches. Art was consumed quickly, slowly, or not at all.

One visitor’s voice could be heard above the bustle and hustle as she threw her hands up in frustration and charged past Kean and his fans.

“They don’t understand what goes into it, it’s not that easy.”

When it comes to an exhibition curated by government-funded officials that encompasses the essence of the “American worker” – an idea President Trump has emphasized since his election in 2016 – both consumers and producers disagree. Does art carry the weight of social commentary? Should it? Should it succumb to society and political pressures?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.

“In a time of such divisiveness, I hope to bring people together with a broader appreciation for what we all contribute,” said Blache.