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Old Patent Office in DC: Home to great art


Picture the Smithsonian Institution in your mind. What do you see? The Castle? The Museum of American History? Maybe the Museum of African American History? There is a lot more to it than the “big-name” collections. A recent trip to Washington, DC gave me the chance to visit two of the smaller museums in the Smithsonian—The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wknight94 talk [GFDL (, from Wikimedia Commons

These two collections share a home in the Old Patent Office Building. The building originally opened in 1836 to house the U.S. Patent Office. It served as a hospital during the Civil War, and the Patent Office remained there until moving to a new home in 1932. The Civil Service Commission and the Government Accounting Office moved in.

By the 1950s the Civil Service commission had moved out and GAO was planning its own new complex. In 1958, the building was transferred to the Smithsonian for use as an art museum. After a renovation, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum moved in.

During the 1990’s it became clear that there was a need for major repairs, so in 2000 the museums were temporarily closed and the Old Patent Building was shut down. A six-year, total renovation began. The facades and porticos were restored, along with large galleries, tall windows and a block long skylight.

The jewel of the redone building is the Kogod Courtyard. A wavy steel and glass canopy enclose the open center of the building, creating a space that is welcoming in all weather. People come from nearby offices and stores to eat lunch. Others use the space and the free WiFi to read, write and do research, or just to update their social media.

 courtyard 02The Kogod Courtyard at the Old Patent Office

courtyard 04This is part of the "water feature" in the courtyard

I came to the Old Patent Building because The Amazing Ms. D wanted to see the new portraits of Barak and Michelle Obama. I was more interested in the people coming to see them. Barak Obama’s portrait hangs in the Gallery of Presidents, along with those of the 43 men who served before him.

Walking through the gallery, it was interesting to see how some of the presidents chose to be represented, especially during the second half of the 20th century. Douglas Chandor painted Franklin Roosevelt at his desk, and included studies for FDR’s hands on the canvas. Elaine de Kooning presented a figurative expressionist view of John Kennedy. Chuck Close gave us a composite of abstract diamonds that he used to form Bill Clinton’s face. Barak Obama chose Kahinde Wiley, a 40-year-old African American artist for his portrait. He positioned Mr. Obama seated on a chair, in front of one of his iconic patterned backgrounds, in this case a large hedge. The painting is so popular that people line up between velvet ropes while waiting for opportunity to take a selfie in front of it.

 barak 01Barak Obama by Kahinde Wiley

jfk 01John F. Kennedy by Elaine de Kooning

Michelle Obama’s portrait does not hang near her husband’s. It is part of a permanent exhibition highlighting iconic people of the 20th and 21st centuries. This exhibit presents representations in painting, sculpture and photography of major cultural and political figures, arranged by the decades of their significance. In her portrait, created by 45-year-old Amy Sherald, an African American painter from Baltimore MD, Michelle Obama sits in front of a plain blue-gray background. The colors are all softened, looking a little washed out, as is Sherald’s style. Obama’s portrait hangs next to an imposing representation of Toni Morrison painted by Robert McCurdy, and together they command the room.

 michelle 02The Amazing Ms. D with Michelle

We also stopped to see Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzalez-Day and Titus Kephar. The exhibit’s aim was to expose the hidden nature of African-Americans in the history of the United States. I was particularly taken by Titus Kephar’s work. He has literally played with our view of historic images, hiding one behind another, to show this absence and presence. The one that I found most striking was “Behind the Myth of Benevolence.” Here Kephar has pulled aside a portrait of Thomas Jefferson to reveal one of Sally Hemmings.

 kephar 01Behind the Myth of Benevolence by Titus Kephar

Sometimes the crowds and size of the large museums of the Smithsonian can be overwhelming. It is good to remember that there are choices that are not as well know, but that offer art that is just as good, and very thought provoking. It is worth it to leave the Mall and head to some of these smaller museums.


Images (7)
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  • courtyard 01
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  • jfk 01
  • kephar 01
  • michelle 02

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