In the Arts section of this week’s issue of Washington CityPaper, a piece titled “Cultural Capital” addresses Representative John Mica’s efforts to have the art deco Apex Building, presently the headquarters of the Federal Trade Commission, given to the National Gallery of Art for the purpose of expanding the museum’s collection space. In typically juvenile fashion, the author sneers at what he believes to be a “vanity project” of the Republican Congressman from Florida, and uses this as a jumping-off point to propose other silly, possible “vanity projects” around town to insult conservatives or, in the case of one Democratic congresswoman, someone viewed as an enemy of the environment. Presumably this effort is meant to be humorous but the joke, if there is one, falls flat: the article is blatantly hypocritical, poorly reasoned, and overlooks salient facts because it assumes its readers will not bother to question its underlying assumptions.
Regular readers of these pages know that I have applauded Congressman Mica’s efforts to make this project happen. The National Gallery has one of the finest collections in the world, and visitors from other countries whom I have shown around the museum always remark how astonished they are that this country was able to put together such a great collection in such a comparatively short period of time. However, the museum faces certain practical limitations in terms of preserving and displaying the art which it holds in trust for the American people.
It is saddled, in the form of the East Building by I.M. Pei, with a leaky, impractical space in which to show its holdings of 20th century and contemporary art alongside temporary exhibitions. Its classic West Building by John Russell Pope is filled to the brim with European and American art from the Middle Ages onward, and cannot be further extended. Further, because it is located on the National Mall, it cannot simply tack on a wing in order to expand. The Apex Building, just across the street from the West Building, would provide a huge new space for the museum, allowing it to provide greater educational and cultural offerings to the public.
None of these things are important, in the eyes of the CityPaper author, who begins his piece with an important oversight or obscuring of facts. Congressman Mica may have told the Washington Post this week that the effort to expand the National Gallery is a dream of his, but this is hardly news, for he has said as much many times. In fact, Mica has been working on this project for many years, and hopes to make it the capstone of his time in Congress. Presumably the juxtaposition of recent news regarding budget negotiations with this long-standing project was intended by the author to be a cause for laughter and finger-pointing by the reader.
The article then goes on to ask, with a snarky sniff, the rhetorical question of how to deal with the fact that the FTC has been housed in the building since 1938. I addressed this issue with specificity in my previous posts on the subject, but raising this question begs the question of the logic behind it. In my experience, publications like CityPaper are always among the first to champion the rehabilitation of old buildings for new, public uses, and this is one of the few points to their credit. Yet here it seems that the rehabilitation of an old office building as a new, public art space, and the relocation of the FTC to newer offices elsewhere, possibly to help redevelop a crumbling part of the city, is an idea which CityPaper cannot support.
Then the piece goes on to distinguish Congressman Mica from his colleagues, saying that while most Republicans “might want to boot the FTC for ideological reasons,” Mica’s motivation is the fact that he is an art collector. It notes that Mica “keeps works by Joan Joan Miró and Alexander Calder in his Capitol Hill office.” As someone whose parents also own a piece by Miró, the great Catalan surrealist, I was unaware that mere ownership of a work of art renders suspect any viewpoints I express with respect to the importance of art education, the study of art history, and aiding the work of great museums like the National Gallery. Would not the fact that Mica, unlike, say former Attorney General John Ashcroft, appreciates works of art that are not always easy to like be something in his favor, in the eyes of CityPaper and its readership? The answer is, apparently not.
The irony here is that we have a Republican leader of Congress who is trying to do something positive for the art world, and instead of celebrating the fact that this could be one of those rare instances when people all along the left-right political divide might work together to achieve something great for the nation, the gentleman’s efforts are being criticized by the left. If Congressman Mica was a Democrat from a left-leaning district, CityPaper would not be questioning either his project or his personal motivations in getting it built. Instead, it would cry out against the intransigence of the FTC, for refusing to give over its office space to art. It would hold up the lack of movement on the project as being the fault of conservatives, rather than what it actually is, i.e. the idea of a powerful conservative. And it would allow CityPaper to complain once again about how D.C. is always going to play second-fiddle to other American cities like New York and San Francisco, when it comes to patronage of the arts and just about everything else.
Yet patronage of the arts is more than attending an exhibition and getting a lapel pin to show you paid your entrance fee. Artistic patronage needs men and women who have dreams, combined with the will and determination to make those dreams a reality. To decry an effort such as that of Congressman Mica as being little more than a “vanity project” is beyond juvenile: it is dishonest and ignorant. For by CityPaper’s definition, cultural institutions like The Whitney and MoMA, which no doubt CityPaper’s writers and readers love, are vanity projects also. In fact these two examples are even worse than the National Gallery, since they are privately rather than publicly funded, and by CityPaper’s standards should therefore be mocked and derided as being nothing more than objects of vanitas on the part of their founders.
It has been a fact throughout history that truly great collections of art, and the institutions that house and care for them, came about because someone passionate about such things took an interest. From Abbot Suger to Lorenzo de Medici, Isabella Stewart Gardner to Peggy Guggenheim, men and women who care about art have always spearheaded efforts to assemble and display the work of great artists, and such efforts continue to the present day, as the example of Huguette Clark, whom I wrote about yesterday, clearly demonstrates.
In the case of Congressman Mica, we have someone who has a vision for the future, and one which is very exciting. He is not going to own the National Gallery, if he is able to get this project completed, nor will he own the art inside of it. At best, he can hope to be acknowledged on a plaque, or perhaps with a commemorative work of art thanking him for his efforts. And any such gesture would be well-deserved.
Thus in the end it is truly a shame – though not a surprise – that, rather than applauding his efforts, CityPaper proves once again that its content is best put to use as birdcage liner.
The Apex Building, present home of the Federal Trade Commission