Growing Pains at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art here in Washington is probably the only part of the Smithsonian Institution I visit with any regularity. While not as large as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, its comprehensive collection of Old Master paintings is a great joy to visit. The core of the collection came from the Mellon and Kress banking families, among others, as indeed the cores of many museum collections have come from banking families around the world. Today it is the jewel of the capital, and a must-see for anyone interested in the study of art.

The original home of the National Gallery, the neoclassical West Building, was designed by John Russell Pope in 1937 and completed in 1941. It features a stately rotunda and long, but inviting corridors down which one can wander in search of great European art from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. As the Gallery’s collection grew, the East Building designed by I.M. Pei was added in 1978 to hold the museum’s modern and contemporary art pieces.

Although enjoyed and appreciated by many, the two halves of the museum have been staring suspiciously at each other for some time now, and things may be coming to a head. Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that the East Building is undergoing significant deterioration, and is in serious need of repair. What began as a series of basic repairs has turned into an $85 million-dollar attempt to save a modern building that is aging poorly, and more rapidly than its solidly built neighbor. Architects are questioning Pei’s design in a way which seems incredible now, given his iconic status.

Even as the repair bills mount, locals have heard about the National Gallery’s hope to annex the Federal Trade Commission building across the street from the General Services Administration for use as additional gallery space, a sort of “third wing” to the museum. Built in 1937-38, the Classical Revival structure in point of fact has many attractive art deco details, particularly on the massive door panels, and features some amazing monumental sculpture in the style of the WPA. One can only hope that the museum, beloved not just of The Courtier but of many Washingtonians and visitors from all over the world, will be able to find the funds it needs not only to repair the East Building but also to make the new gallery space something worthy of the attractive building which it will occupy.

“Man Controlling Trade” by Michael Lantz,
at the Federal Trade Commission Building

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