National Gallery of Art speakers at Cleveland Park Tuesday Talks

Inside the National Gallery of Art

Cleveland Park Residents Provide Rare Look at NGA Restoration

By James Arvantes

A three-year restoration and renovation of the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) East Building has given curators more space and flexibility to display and showcase great and engaging works of art, benefiting the arts community and the public at large.

That was one of the key messages imparted by NGA senior curators and Cleveland Park residents Mark Leithauser and Harry Cooper during the most recent Tuesday Talk at the Cleveland Park Library on May 21.

The NGA’s East Building, housed under three separate towers, opened in June 1978 as a modern and contemporary complement to the NGA’s neoclassical West Building. In 2013, the East Building closed for a three-year renovation and restoration that added 12,250 feet of new exhibition space, which included two soaring tower galleries and a rooftop for outdoor sculptures that overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue.

“In addition to getting the wonderful towers and terrace, we also did the reassignment of galleries,” said Cooper, senior curator of modern art for the NGA, in addressing a capacity crowd of nearly 200 people.

With the renovation, NGA staff moved special exhibitions from the building’s mezzanine and upper levels to the concourse area, making it possible to dedicate other parts of the building to permanent collections and to show many more works of art, Cooper said.

The East Building, for example, has accepted numerous works of art from the now-shuttered Corcoran Museum, displaying about 50 pieces of art from the Corcoran collection at any one time.

This includes works produced by Washington color school painters, which the Gallery “had somewhat neglected” in the past because it was considered local, not national art, said Cooper, whose exhibitions included Piet Mondrian, Frank Stella and Stuart Davis, among others.

With these and other works from the Corcoran, the East Building is now able to feature an American modern section of art in the building’s first tower.

At the same time, the renovation has enabled the East Building to display more photographs, prints and drawings, works of art that stay up for five or six months, said Cooper.

“They have to be matted and framed and rotated,” said Cooper, who has taught at Harvard, Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities. “But we have an amazing staff who has been keeping up with that.”

Through photos, Cooper led the audience on a virtual tour of the East Building from the ground up, showing the progression of art history and various art movements along the way.

“We are able to take contemporary art and connect it to history,” Cooper said. And that, he explained, is “really what the East Building and the history of art is about.”

“We are not a contemporary art museum,” Cooper said. “We cannot keep up with every trend, but hopefully we are showcasing some of the best work and putting it in an interesting context.”

Cooper showed a picture of a woman in the gallery looking at a 1901 Picasso painting and a Matisse painting from the same year, set side by side. One of the pictures portrays a male, the other a female; one is looking forward, the other backward, the two paintings serving as a metaphor for art history.

“There is a premium on being original and innovative and changing the rules,” Cooper said. “But you have history on your back, and you have to keep an eye on the past.”

Timeless Art & Artists

History and personalities played a prominent role in Leithauser’s presentation. Leithauser, the Gallery’s senior curator and chief of design, unveiled a picture of the East Building’s official opening on June 1, 1978, an event attended by then President Jimmy Carter, Episcopal Bishop John Walker and philanthropist Paul Mellon, a munificent benefactor to the Gallery.

World-renowned architect I.M. Pei, who died on May 15 at the age of 102, designed the East Building. When Leithauser came to work for the NGA as a young intern in 1974, he shared office space with the famous architect, and the two quickly became life-long friends.

Pei asked Leithauser and his co-workers how he could improve their workspace, which was then a large, fledging design studio.

“Imagine an architect asking that kind of thing,” said Leithauser, a gifted artist in his own right who has presented more than 500 exhibitions during his 44 years at the Gallery. “He was a wonderful man.”

Many famous artists came through Leithauser’s office space over the years, including Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella and Frenchman Jean Dubuffet, a chain smoker who was especially fond of Rice Krispies.

“What he loved most about America was la Rice Krispies,” said Leithauser, shifting into a French accent and provoking laughter from the audience. “He could not get them in France for some reason.”

Leithauser explained that the East and West Buildings hold 18 exhibitions a year, some small, others vast. He gave a plug for an upcoming exhibition that opens on June 2 called The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, an 18,000 square foot exhibition that starts in the 5th century and ends with “paintings that are still literally wet.”

Leithauser showed pictures of various exhibitions through the years, including one on the Oceana and Pacific Islands that started with Captain Cook and the earliest discoveries of Polynesia and contained very rare Hawaiian objects.

Leithauser also described an exhibition on French sculptor Auguste Rodin that covered all four levels of the gallery, starting at the top of the building and winding down through the mezzanine level before ending up on the ground floor in the atrium.

In one photo, Leithauser is seen peering through the door of a miniature model of an Aztec exhibition. He recalled showing the picture to his daughter, who was then in kindergarten. “She said, ‘Daddy, you play with doll houses,’” Leithauser recounted, drawing laughs from the audience.

Favorite Paintings          

When asked during the question and answer segment to name their favorite paintings, Cooper and Leithauser both chose works from the NGA’s West Building. Cooper picked Paul Cezanne’s Bend in the Road from 1906 and Leithauser chose The Old Musician by Edouard Manet from 1862, which he described as “very powerful.”   

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