The National Gallery of Art also has been building, but the construction has been hidden. Since 1997, construction crews have been moving west to east through the John Russell Pope–designed West Building. The clearest evidence of their work is the NGA’s beautiful, light-filled new ground-floor sculpture and photography galleries. The NGA has been updating systems such as fire suppression and climate control, as well as upgrading facilities for the gallery’s cutting-edge research and conservation. Until recently, the entire West Building was heated and cooled with the original late-1930s equipment, complete with giant fans and fabric fingers that cleaned the air of art-damaging particles.
While modernizing the West Building, the NGA has opened 8,770 square feet of new gallery space: 5,000 for sculpture, 3,000 for its first dedicated photography galleries, and 770 for the sublime Dutch cabinet galleries, the latter in space that was previously a broom closet. The NGA also added an outdoor sculpture garden on the Mall in 1999. The three acres of skylights that allow natural light into the second-floor galleries have been cleaned, and entire collections of paintings and sculptures have been reinstalled. In total, the NGA has 271,000 square feet of exhibition space.
The West Building modernization has been paid for by the federal government, which funds the maintenance of both buildings. Since 1998, the government has appropriated $127 million for the project. Right now work is underway in the British and American galleries, the easternmost in the West Building. Up next: the French galleries. After that, in four to seven years, the East Building will close for upgrades.
Planners have determined that the NGA needs another 160,000 square feet of space for things like offices, galleries, and education facilities. The question is where to find it.
This is a situation that the NGA’s founder, Andrew Mellon, thought he had anticipated. In the mid-1930s, when the Pittsburgh industrialist was conceiving what would come to be the National Gallery of Art, he surveyed Washington and picked the site where the West Building is now. Although Mellon chose the Mall site in part because of its prestige, he also chose it because there was room for his gallery to expand. Mellon hoped that his gift of art would lead to similar gifts. And that’s what happened.
By 1968, it was clear that the National Gallery had to grow, and thanks to Mellon’s foresight there was a plot of land just to the east of John Russell Pope’s building. Between 1968 and 1978, architect I.M. Pei designed and the National Gallery constructed the East Building. It cost $93 million—$315 million in today’s dollars.
The National Gallery is funded through a mix of private and federal resources. In 2008, Congress appropriated $102 million for operations and $18 million for maintenance of its two buildings, both in accordance with the arrangement Mellon made with the federal government. The NGA’s acquisitions of artworks and much of its programming and special exhibitions are funded through its endowment and private fundraising. The NGA has an endowment of $724 million, one of the half dozen largest endowments of any American art museum.
Mellon didn’t foresee the need for a second expansion. So what space is left around the National Gallery? Congress controls the spaces east of Third Street, which borders the East Building. The Mall borders the NGA on the south, and no one can build on the Mall. To the west of the West Building is the sculpture garden and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. To the north is the Federal Trade Commission’s 1939 headquarters, known as the Apex Building because it sits at the apex of the Federal Triangle.
What are the NGA’s options? The most fantastic scheme involves a possibility for which I.M. Pei planned: building under the Mall. “The downside of that is that it would be enormously expensive,” Powell says.
But the NGA can’t build underground to the west because Tiber Creek runs beneath the sculpture garden. So the National Gallery’s best-case scenario for growth is finding a way to move into the Apex Building, the Federal Trade Commission’s headquarters, which would provide 187,000 square feet of usable space.
“It is an obvious solution to everything,” says Powell, “but we’ll just have to see.”
It would take an act of Congress to transfer the Apex Building to the NGA. The FTC would have to find a new headquarters, presumably in a way that consolidates the agency’s two Washington offices—the second in the new Moshe Safdie–designed federal building on New Jersey Avenue, Northwest. And Congress would have to move with speed. If the NGA is going to move into the Apex Building, Powell says he wants it to happen by 2012. That’s roughly when renovation plans for the East Building should begin to be finalized.
“We have till the end of this year,” he says. “Then we’ll know which direction this will all head in. If the Apex Building isn’t an option, we’ll address it in a different way.”
Expanding into the Apex Building makes more sense than any other NGA expansion plan. It would put state-of-the-art education facilities—such as the ones built recently by the Met and the Museum of Modern Art in New York—on a new NGA campus. It would keep new galleries or study centers for graphics arts and works on paper near the rest of the NGA’s collection. The NGA has determined that it could build an underground link between the Apex and the West Building, and it has publicly committed to raising $100 million for renovations and other costs of moving into the Apex.
Transferring the Apex Building to the NGA would also make sense for the city. For decades, the area between the White House and the US Capitol has been made up of three distinct zones: downtown DC above Pennsylvania Avenue; the wedge between Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues and 15th Street, Northwest, known as the Federal Triangle; and the Mall. The expansion of the NGA into the Apex Building would begin to change that, physically linking the three parts of the city core. It’s a change many urbanists would embrace.
“It would be a welcome beginning,” says Terrance Williams, a professor at Catholic University who is an expert on urban design. “It’s been a longstanding problem in DC that there are two cities, the federal city and then the city, and there are all kinds of ways that the federal city could begin to integrate with the rest of the city.”