The U.S. Government's (Many) Art Curators

Washington, D.C. may be renowned for its uncurated collection of gladhanders and ideologues, but the nation's capitol is less well-known as the home of numerous art, antiques and artifacts collections that aren't housed in museums. All three branches of government have these collections -- with curators in charge of them, to boot -- that probably add more ambiance than cultural enlightenment to visitors. But, of course, who expects the Treasury Department to be a place of culture?

"We have 5,000-7,000 objects in the collection, depending on how you count objects," Richard Cote, the Treasury Department's curator, said. (They probably count taxpayer dollars just as loosely.) Among the notable pieces in the collection are portraits of Treasury secretaries, dating back to Alexander Hamilton ("That's our core collection," Cote said), and various artworks produced for the federal government during the New Deal. There are also archival photographs (of the construction of the Treasury Building), postage stamps, war bond posters and other two-dimensional pieces that line the corridors and office walls, and the rooms themselves are packed with sculpted ornaments, desks and chairs that date back to the 19th century.

There are Saturday tours of the Treasury Building, and meetings take place throughout the week. Basically, there is one ongoing exhibition going on (with occasionally changed elements): The history of the Department of the Treasury. One finds the same type of exhibition at the Senate Office Building (portraits of Senate leaders, sculpted busts of the vice-president, furniture used by senators and assorted whatnot), the House of Representatives (portraits of speakers, sculptures representing each state in the union, furniture, things best described as artifacts), Supreme Court (photographs, sculpted busts and oil portraits of justices, photographs of the interior and exterior of the Supreme Court building, furniture and memorabilia), Federal Reserve (paintings, many on the theme of currency, and portraits of Fed chairmen) and the Office of the Architect of the Capitol (sculptures, sculpted and painted portraits of members of Congress, photographs of the Capitol). Yet other collections are to be seen at the State Department (paintings, furniture, decorative objects), Blair House (paintings, antique household furnishings), Department of Defense (combat art) and the White House.

Approximately 600,000 visitors tour the White House every year, passing through eight rooms and looking into two others, where selected items from a collection of 5,000-6,000 pieces of fine and decorative art (carpets, furniture, paintings, porcelains) are on view, according to William Allman, the White House's curator. The entire collection numbers 40,000 items, but most of that is tableware (china, flatware and glasses) that the public won't see but visiting dignitaries and other invited guests might use.

The General Services Administration's collection -- 24,000 paintings, prints and sculptures, dating from the 1850s to the present, all of which were new when commissioned by the agency -- is placed in federal buildings around the country. If any history is told through these artworks, it is the development of American art over the past century and a half rather than of the agency. The Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs (more than five and a half million items in that collection), the National Parks Service (120 million items), Fish and Wildlife Service (five and a half million objects), U.S. Geological Survey (more than 40,000 items) and several other bureaus, has the largest of all these federal collections, which are housed in museums and federal offices throughout the country. "We have so much stuff, and no one will ever see it all," Terry Childs, museum program manager in the Department of Interior, said.

Displays of a particular federal collection are peculiar to the particular government institution. Among the items on display at the House of Representatives, for example, is a baseball card for Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, who had an 11-year career in the major leagues, pitching for St. Louis, Pittsburgh and the Mets (1952-62) before serving three terms (1969-75) as a Republican Congressman from North Carolina. "It illuminates the possibility that any citizen could be here and do this," said Farar Elliott, curator of the House of Representatives. Another revealing exhibition item is a congressman's desk from 1857, when the House of Representatives moved into its new chambers. "Members of Congress didn't have their own offices and staffs, like they do now," she noted. "Everything they had to work on needed to fit into the one desk whose top lifted up, like a desk at an elementary school. People coming here are stunned to see how limited their resources were and how the nation and the responsibilities of congressmen have grown."

The Senate's collection is also vast, from the quite valuable (a Thomas Sully portrait of Thomas Jefferson, a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington) to items verging on flea market (Bill Clinton impeachment trial tickets and Senate "doodles" on scraps of paper) and even the china and silverware used at Barack Obama's presidential luncheon. In its entirety, the collection represents "the institutional memory of the Senate," said curator Diane K. Skvarla -- even when the objects aren't completely pertinent to the Senate, like the luncheon china. The Senate's collection consists of perhaps 10,000 items, some of which are viewable in the lobby, halls, offices and meeting rooms, while the rest is in storage. "Everything has been documented," she said, "and there are many items in off-site storage. "We learned from 9-11 how everything could have been destroyed."

Not every federal collection is intended to tell a story. The diplomatic reception rooms on the eighth floor of the State Department -- with their Paul Revere silver punch bowl, desk used by Thomas Jefferson, Affleck and Chippendale chairs, tea sets, cabinets, tables and numerous paintings by John Singleton Copley, Jean Baptiste Greuze, Fitz Hugh Lane, Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart and other notable artists -- are less informing visitors about the federal agency and more offering a period look of the period in the U.S. between 1740 and 1830. Over at Blair House, the presidential guest house directly across from the White House, the artwork, furnishings and objects are more mid- to late-19th century, even extending into the early 20th century. "We're not conceived to be a museum," Candace Shireman, Blair House curator, said, "but as a functioning guest house, a hotel for foreign dignitaries and other official guests of the U.S. government with the flavor of historicity and periodness."

This is the essential difference between curating a collection at a museum and one at a federal agency: These are working buildings where staff and visitors -- and, in the case of Blair House, overnight guests - use the furniture, walk on the rugs, sleep in the four-poster beds, drink from the tea cups, write at the desk and, sometimes, break the chair when they lean back too far. Most objects are not behinds ropes and glass. "You hope members of Congress don't spill coffee or orange juice on the tables," State Department curator Marcee Craighill said. "It can be quite a challenge." Two-thirds of her annual $500,000 budget goes to conservation -- fixing things and then putting them back into use. History has a job to do.

At the White House, the job is to put the nation's best foot forward, and curator William Allman adorns the walls with portraits of presidents and first ladies, as well as other paintings by such well-known artists as Albert Bierstadt, George Caleb Bingham, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Jasper Cropsey, Chile Hassam, Martin Johnson Heade, Winslow Homer, John Marin, Willard Metcalf, Thomas Moran, Maurice Prendergast, Norman Rockwell, Severin Roesen, John Singer Sargent and Henry Ossawa Tanner. "We do not collect artwork from artists who are alive," Allman said. "You can imagine that every artist in the country would send in things, believing that their work belongs in the White House."

Federal collections are rarely lent anywhere (and, if so, most likely to another federal agency) so aren't insured. As a result, no one knows or bothers to estimate the value of any of these collections, with the one exception of the State Department where an occasional loan takes place. The 4,500 objects in that collection have been appraised at $100 million.

Amassing and taking care of all these collections is an expensive activity, and the money to pay for it come from different sources. The Senate and the House of Representatives allocate their own budgets, but the federal agencies rely on donations from friends' groups. The State Department raises money from private sources for the diplomatic reception rooms through its Office of Fine Arts, of which Marcee Craighill is the director ("We act as a nonprofit. All gifts are tax-deductible," she said). The government only provides funds for structural maintenance at Blair House, while the tax-exempt organization, Blair House Restoration Fund, raises money for all object conservation and purchases. The 6,000-member nonprofit Supreme Court Historical Society raises up to $35,000 per year for acquisitions and portrait commissions, and the Treasury Historical Association generates money to maintain and improve the Treasury Building, as well as add to its collection ("We have some very rich alumni," Cote said). There is a Fine Arts Trust Fund, which solicits gifts of money and artworks to the Federal Reserve, and the United States Capitol Historical Society, which raises money for the research and collections work of the curator and architect of the capitol. The White House has its own White House Historical Association, which was formed in the early 1960s by then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and raises several million dollars per year for restoration projects and acquisitions through the sale of Christmas ornaments, White House guidebooks and poster reproductions of paintings in the White House collection.