« Return to news

The White House’s Art Collection Is Overwhelmingly, Well, White. Here’s How That Could Change

September 27, 2023 | In the Press

From dcist (https://dcist.com/story/23/09/27/white-house-art-collection-diversity-issue-artists-modern-contemporary-art/)

When the Committee for the Preservation of the White House met on Sept. 6, they had lots to discuss: identifying art collection policies to change, textiles to replace and rooms to refurbish, plus any necessary updates to continue modernizing a 19th-century house for 21st-century living.

But the wider arts community had their eyes on another potential task of the committee: tackling the glaring lack of diversity among the artists represented in the presidential mansion. Of the 512 artworks in the White House collection, only 32 are by women, and 12 by artists of color.

In April, the committee had its first meeting after President Biden named 13 appointees. While no formal decisions were made regarding the art collection, at least one of the newcomers to the committee believes the artists represented in the White House’s art collection should be more diverse.

That appointee is Ethan Lasser, the chair of Art of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He says he’s not surprised by the collection’s lack of diversity: many museums, including his own, are beginning to address similar issues in their portfolios.

“Building the [White House] collection in ways that really tackles those absences, those gaps, should be the work going forward,” says Lasser.

But whether the White House has the capacity to make its art collection more inclusive — or the inclination — remains to be seen. “I won’t say the collection’s complete,” says art historian John Wilmerding, the longest-serving member of the committee. But, ”there’s only a finite amount of space.”

“The Builders” by Jacob Lawrence can be seen hanging on the wall above the table with a vase of flowers.The White House Historical Association

Many of the White House’s current policies make it difficult for more contemporary styles and diverse artists to make the cut. Unless commissioned for a portrait or holiday card, the White House avoids collecting living artists or works less than 25 years old. It eschews light-sensitive pieces such as photographs and works on paper. It also only collects “leading” American artists — a problematic definition given the art world’s long history of excluding women and people of color.

“The field of art history is one that has been very slow to diversify,” says Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. She knows this firsthand: In 2000, she was the first African American to earn a PhD in Art History from Stanford University.

“I don’t think that the dearth of works by [women and people of color] is unusual in the White House,” says Shaw. “You see it across all collecting.”

It has only been in the last 30 years that the field of American Art History, established in the 1960s, has examined the contributions of underrepresented groups, she says.“Historically those populations were not present in the academy as individuals, and similarly that material was not being taught, written about, or collected by museums,” she added.

The White House is ‘not an art gallery’

It has never been the curator’s or committee’s objective to represent every major American artist or arts movement. “The White House is not a gallery,” says Betty Monkman, who retired as White House chief curator in 2002. “It’s an historic house.”

Many of the committee’s activities focus on preserving the historic feel of the house while restoring rooms worn out by its million-or-so annual visitors. This has seldom involved moving or changing the art.

“One of the questions that came up: Should the White House continue to be an active collector?” says Wilmerding of the April meeting. “You don’t want to be acquiring just to put stuff in storage.”

Monkman echoed his concern, adding that even continuing the tradition of commissioning portraits of each president and first lady will eventually lead to a tight squeeze.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” she says. “There is not going to be much more space in the public areas of the White House to continue to hang all of these works.”

The pace of collecting has already slowed over the years: the Nixon White House added over 70 artworks to the collection; Reagan added 35, Clinton 25. Obama added just 12, the fewest since Eisenhower. Trump kept Obama’s pace, adding six.

Wilmerding expects that to continue going forward.

“We may rely more on going after significant gifts from foundations where there is a clear hole in the collection,” he says, adding that the collection isn’t a survey of American art but instead an “overview of American achievement.”

Plenty of American achievement, however, is glaringly absent. The White House has no artworks by Native Americans. It has two by Asian Americans and four by Latinos — all men. Only 24 women are represented in the collection — and two of them are former First Ladies.

This painting, “1938 Steinway Piano, The Grand Foyer,” was done by Zhen-Huan Lu for the 2002 White House Christmas card.White House Collection/White House Historical Association

How the White House’s art collection grew

Historically, the White House was never a big art collector, mostly receiving presidential portraits. But the collection more than doubled in the 1960s and ‘70s, going from 119 works to 394 after First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy created the curator’s office in 1961.

In 1995, the Clintons purchased the collection’s first artwork by a Black artist: a seascape by Henry Ossawa Tanner titled Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City. Later, they would commission Simmie Knox to paint their official White House portraits, the first and only by an African American portrait painter.

The Bushes followed suit, acquiring a landscape by the Black oil painter Edward Mitchell Banister, and commissioning holiday card art from Pennsylvania artist Adrian Martinez as well as Zhen-Huan Lu — the first artwork by an Asian American to be added to the collection. They also worked with the White House Historical Association to buy The Builders, a work by Jacob Lawrence, a painter known for depicting Black historical figures and scenes of Black working class life. Purchased at $2.5 million, it is still the most expensive artwork added to the collection.

According to several people interviewed for this story, these additions weren’t political choices as much as matters of personal taste. Still, not all updates were without controversy.

“Some people criticized us when we hung the O’Keeffe in the Green Room,” recalls Monkman of when the Clintons added Georgia O’Keeffe’s oil painting Mountain at Bear Lake – Taos to a room otherwise packed with more traditional 19th-century work. “They thought it was out of character.”

But Wilmerding thinks it was less about the painting itself and more about its original slab frame. “Everything else had fairly elaborate 19th-century carved frames. So part of it just looked like a fish out of water,” he says.

For Wilmerding, hanging modern or contemporary work next to say, a romantic 19th-century landscape doesn’t quite work.

The Obamas’ interior designer Michael S. Smith, however, had a different perspective — one that might provide an answer to the diversity problem facing the committee.

President Obama meets with national security aides John Brennan, foreground, and Denis McDonough in the Treaty Room office in the White House Residence, March 16, 2011. Susan Rothenberg’s “Butterfly” hangs above the couch.Pete Souza / Official White House Photo

Borrowing work for the Obamas’ residence

On Obama’s inauguration day, White House staffers had just three hours to refresh the White House residence. During that time, Smith had the curator’s office secure loans of modern artworks from the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art to help achieve a design more appropriate for a young family.

“It was a beautiful and elegant solution,” says Molly Donovan, curator of contemporary art at NGA, who was there in 2009 overseeing the installation of the gallery’s pieces. Of the 31 modern artworks the NGA would loan over Obama’s tenure, Smith was certain to select work by women — like Susan Rothenberg’s Butterfly, and Pat Steir’s Waterfall with Rose Petals — in addition to works by other under-represented artists, like Stretch of Black III by Leon Polk Smith, who is of Cherokee descent.

However, the art world’s love for the Obamas only did so much when it came to acquisitions for the collection. Despite the best efforts of curators, committee members, and even other foundations, only nine modern artworks were added during the Obamas’ tenure. Thomas was the only person of color represented in their acquisitions, and one of only two female artists they added to the collection — the other being Sharon Sprung, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait.

“It really mattered most of all that the White House’s artwork was brought into the present time,” says Christy MacLear, the Rauschenberg Foundation’s former president who made behind-the-scenes efforts to help diversify the collection to no avail.

Some efforts by committee members were simply unsuccessful, like one to secure a gift from the Romare Bearden Foundation, the artist who founded the African American art collective Spiral. Availability was another issue. According to a spokesperson for the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, they weren’t in a position to give at that time.

“Of course we wanted a deeper breadth of diversity,” says Smith. “But it was really hard!”

The Old Family Dining Room in the White House as it looked on February 9, 2015, with several modern and contemporary artworks hung by the Obamas’ interior designer, Michael S. Smith.Amanda Lucidon / Official White House Photo

The committee was also offered a painting by Lois Mailou Jones. It was declined because its subject matter — a portrait of actor Leigh Whipper — didn’t fit the White House’s collecting interests. “There’s a huge list of people we would have liked to have gotten,” Smith says. “We fielded what was offered.”

Could loans be a long-term solution?

If the White House refrains from actively collecting, Wilmerding thinks hanging loans might be a creative solution.

“The National Gallery is sitting on half the [Rothko] estate, and you would get loans without too much trouble,” he says, noting that painter Mark Rothko’s blue paintings could be fitting additions to the White House’s Blue Room.

Moving towards loans would require policy changes, Wilmerding thinks, to prevent private collectors and commercial galleries from using the White House to affect market valuations. The White House rarely borrows work for state rooms like the Blue and Green rooms — and cost and availability could still be a problem, especially if they try to borrow from museums other than the big publicly-funded ones in D.C.

“There’s a ton of stuff that we really tried to borrow before the [2009] inauguration,” says Smith, rattling off names like contemporary photographers Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Christina Fernandez, and older masters like Martin Puryear, and Beauford Delaney. He wanted art that reflected the breadth of America: differences in styles, media, and artists’ identities.

The intent was to borrow from regional museums, but “what we didn’t know is there’s no money at the White House for the costs associated with borrowing,” Smith says. Instead, they borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery, museums whose insurance also covers loans to the White House.

Artist Beauford Delaney, whose work “Auto-Portrait,” is pictured here and currently hangs in the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, was another artist whose work Smith attempted to hang in the Obamas’ residence.Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Plus, the institutions they can borrow from have their own issues with diversity. For instance, in 2009, works that Smith wanted to hang — by Mark Bradford, or Mickalene Thomas, for example — weren’t available from federal museums. They either hadn’t collected those artists, hadn’t collected them with enough depth to have additional work in storage, or had only collected works that are too light sensitive.

Shaw believes the First Family can elevate under-represented artists in ways other than acquiring more art. “I was very impressed when the inauguration happened, and Mrs. Biden chose the Robert Duncanson,” she says, referring to his painting, Landscape with Rainbow, which was briefly borrowed from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and presented in the Capitol Rotunda. “That she wanted to lift up a 19th-century African American landscape painter in that way, at a moment when the nation was watching: I thought it was much more powerful representationally than perhaps hanging that painting in the White House, that most of the public will not see.”

Behind the scenes, the White House is taking other steps to tell the building’s story in more inclusive ways. The CPWH is discussing ways to recognize the enslaved labor used to build the house, according to Wilmerding. And in June, after the retirement of chief curator Lydia Tederick, Donna Hayashi-Smith became acting chief curator. Should she get the job permanently, she’ll be the first person of color to occupy the position.

It still remains to be seen what art the Bidens will add to the collection. They’ve kept knowledge of most loans in the residence close to the vest. At present, all that is known is that the Bidens have thus far added the fewest artworks to the art collection since the McKinley administration: zero.

Considering 92% of the White House art collection was made by white men, it will take numerous artworks to make a meaningful difference to the percentages. “You’re not going to flip that inequity in a day or in a year,” Lasser says. “It’s going to take a long time.”

Connect with us
Our mission

The mission of ARCS is to represent and promote registrars and collection specialists, to educate the profession in best practices of registration and collections care, and to facilitate communication and networking.

Learn more about ARCS »