The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the history of America through individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.
The National Portrait Gallery is a historic art museum located between 7th, 9th, F, and G Streets NW in Washington, D.C., in the United States. Founded in 1962 and opened to the public in 1968, it is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Its collections focus on images of famous Americans. The museum is housed in the historic Old Patent Office Building, as is the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The two museums are the eponym for the Gallery Place Washington Metro station, located at the corner of F and 7th Streets NW.
As of 2011, the National Portrait Gallery was the only museum in the United States dedicated solely to portraiture. The museum had 65 employees and a $9 million annual budget in 2013. By February 2013, it housed 21,200 works of art, which had been seen by 1,069,932 visitors in 2012.
Portrait addition procedure
By 1977, the National Portrait Gallery had three curatorial divisions: Painting and sculpture, prints and drawings, and photography.
Initially, the National Portrait Gallery had fairly strict rules regarding which images could enter its collection. The person depicted had to be historically significant. An individual also needed to be dead at least 10 years before their portrait could be displayed (although some images of obviously important living people were acquired while they still lived). After an initial affirmative determination by curators at a monthly curatorial meeting, the National Portrait Gallery Commission (the museum’s board of directors) approved the person’s inclusion. The commission was initially quite conservative in its assessment of “historically significant,” although this began to be relaxed in 1969. As of 2006, the definition of “historically significant” had become quite loose, although “some kind of fame or notoriety remains a prerequisite”. Portraits of living individuals or those dead less than 10 years are also now allowed to be displayed in the museum, so long as their inclusion is clearly important (such as presidents or generals).
The process for choosing which images the museum acquires is simple but can be contentious. Potential acquisitions are vigorously and informally discussed at length by researchers, historians, and the curatorial departments. Some of the criteria used in the decision-making process are: The number of existing portraits of the individual already in the collection, the quality of the potential portrait, the uniqueness of the potential portrait, the reputation of the portrait’s author, and the cost of the portrait. Formal decisions to acquire a portrait are made at monthly curatorial meetings, then ratified by the National Portrait Gallery Commission.
Key exhibits and programs of the museum
Frederick Douglass (1856), daguerreotype by an unknown author, acquired by the NPG in 1990.
A hallmark of the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection is the Hall of Presidents, which contains portraits of nearly all American presidents. It is the largest and most complete collection in the world, except for the White House collection itself. The centerpiece of the Hall of Presidents is the famous “Lansdowne portrait” of George Washington. How the museum obtains presidential images has changed over the years. Presidential portraits from 1962 to 1987 were usually obtained through purchase or donation. Beginning in 1998, NPG began commissioning portraits of presidents, starting with George H. W. Bush. In 2000, NPG began commissioning portraits of First Ladies as well, beginning with Hillary Clinton. Funds for these commissions are privately raised, and each portrait costs about $150,000 to $200,000.
11:30 a.m.-7:00 p.m. daily
Closed December 25
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