Obama brightens up the White House

With modern tastes and a mission to promote diversity, the President's art collection signals a break with tradition. Arifa Akbar reports

Saturday 04 July 2009 00:00 BST

With every new administration comes a new era and with it, a new art collection to reflect the shifting sands of American cultural politics. In the Clinton years, it was a frothy portrait of Mamie Eisenhower clad in a pink debutante ballgown that took pride of place on the imperial walls of the White House. George Bush fancied the more muscular patriotism of George Caitlin's "wild frontier" paintings.

Now, America's first black President has made clear that he wishes to add a splash of colour to the walls of Washington's First House. Barack Obama is extending his push for diversity to the White House's art collection, The Art Newspaper revealed this week, with the launch of a campaign that will replace the fustiness of the existing collection with works by "more diverse" artists.

Discreet approaches have been made to dealers and collectors who represent black, Hispanic and Asian artists as well as female painters to redress the current dearth; of the 400 pieces in the White House's permanent art collection purchased over the centuries, only five are by black artists.

The President has already shown that his artistic proclivities tend towards modern and contemporary painters such as Ed Ruscha and Jasper Johns: on inauguration day, the National Gallery of Art furnished the presidential living quarters with a wealth of loans, including John's 1969 lead relief, Numerals, 0 Through 9 and Ruscha's I Think I'll ...

Now, the First Lady's office, which is handling the White House's art outreach effort, has enlisted the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to lend them paintings by modern artists, from Glenn Ligon, a Bronx-born artist whose work traces the experience of a gay African-American, to Alma Thomas, the first African American woman to have a solo art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971.

The Obama's foray into acquiring artworks by female and non-white artists – much of it through long term loans – has been met by shock and enthusiasm in equal measures in America's artistic circles, and their choices to remove some of the older artworks is viewed as a deeply symbolic gesture.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, within the Smithsonian Institution, said the nation's art world was "abuzz" over the White House campaign. "Such a gesture from so influential a place has understandably had a catalytic effect, stirring conversation and raising expectations," she said. "And that's a good thing." The actions of the President and First Lady "evinced an ability to transform the bully pulpit into a poetic perch from which to suggest new strategies for broadening the conversation about art and culture in this country".

The Hirshhorn Museum has lent the Obamas a 1992 text painting by Ligon entitled Black Like Me #2', and two works by Thomas, including Watusi (Hard Edge) and Sky Light. Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn's chief curator, who worked with the White House to arrange the loans, said he was impressed by the diversity on the list of choices the Obamas presented to him.

"I don't believe there's been any administration that has been as interested in contemporary art," he said. "I was extremely impressed when they sent over the list of what they were interested in borrowing, because it showed a wide range of interests and a wide spectrum and understanding of both modern and contemporary art."

Traditionally, the President's permanent collection of purchased works, which is funded by the White House Acquisition Trust, has tended to be decades-,if not centuries-old and focused its attentions on works by artists who are long dead. This recent change in direction has left some dealers and gallerists excited at the prospect of selling works by younger, black artists to the Obamas. One New York gallerist, Jeffrey Deitch, said he would like to place a "super-outstanding Basquiat" in the hands of the White House, given the opportunity.

Semonti Mustaphi, a spokeswoman for the First Lady's office, declined to comment on the effect on the careers, and market value, of the artists selected. The search for new work is still "very preliminary", she added.

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