Art-loving Washingtonians now have one more reason to thank David Rubenstein: The billionaire businessman and philanthropist has donated $5.4 million to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, the museum announced Monday.
The gallery has been closed since December 9 for a complete overhaul—the first in 45 years—that will upgrade electrical, plumbing, and heating/cooling systems, add wireless access throughout the building, and restore two vaulted ceilings in the second-level galleries, among other improvements. The $30 million project comprises 50 percent public funding and 50 percent private; Rubenstein’s gift completes the private fundraising goal. To honor the contribution, the museum’s Grand Salon will be named after Rubenstein.
Rubenstein’s other recent contributions to local arts and historic facilities include a $4.5 million donation to the National Zoo’s giant panda program in 2011, a $7.5 million donation in 2012 to help repair the Washington Monument, and a $50 million gift last January to help the Kennedy Center fund a planned $100 million expansion.
Here’s a reason to make another trip to the National Gallery of Art: Soon you’ll be able to see rarely viewed works by such artists as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas, as the museum gains 62 pieces bequeathed by the estate of museum benefactor Paul Mellon after his death in 1999, according to the Associated Press. Among the works are van Gogh’s “Still Life of Oranges and Lemons With Blue Groves,” which goes on display June 7; “Still Life With Bottle, Carafe, Bread and Wine,” one of Monet’s earliest known paintings; and 12 oil sketches by 19th-century post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat, which, when combined with the gallery’s existing five Seurat works makes up one of the most significant collections of his works in the US.
The works were under the care of Mellon’s widow, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon until her death in March of this year. The Mellon family has donated nearly 1,200 works of art since 1964.
History hasn’t typically interpreted Edgar Degas as a feminist, but the French painter’s relationship with American artist Mary Cassatt—the subject of the show “Degas/Cassatt,” opening May 11 at the National Gallery of Art—reflected a true respect and kinship. “One thing that’s nice about him is that he never thought about her in terms of being a woman painter,” curator Kimberly Jones says. “I think he just thought of her as a painter.”
Although Degas was a decade older and of a different nationality, in many ways he identified with Cassatt—whom he knew well and worked with—more easily than he did with other Impressionists. Both came from wealthy families and were well educated, and they eschewed the landscapes many other Impressionists painted in favor of focusing on the human form. Says Jones: “The story is that when he saw her art for the first time, he said, ‘Here’s someone who feels as I do.’ Neither one was accustomed to compromising in their art or in their personal lives.”
Researching the two artists’ relationship was a challenge because Cassatt burned all her correspondence before she died and Degas never kept his. His influence on Cassatt is generally accepted, but Jones and conservator Ann Hoenigswald delved deeply into the works they left behind to look for evidence that she was similarly influential on him. “It was a back-and-forth, and she was certainly the much more experimental figure when it came to etching,” Jones says. “Often she was going into completely new territory and he was looking at what she was doing and emulating her. I hope that when people see the show they’ll understand that she was absolutely his equal.”
Through October 5; nga.gov.
This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Washington has something of a starring role in the latest comic-book blockbuster to hit the big screen, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Most of the action takes place in the nation’s capital, where S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is located. Metro police officers engage in a shootout, Metrobuses turn up as collateral damage, and the Mall provides the backdrop for the film’s opening scene, in which Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) pulls up beside the cryogenically preserved super-soldier and quips, “Anyone know where I can find the Smithsonian? I’m looking for a fossil.”
Thanks in part to the challenges of shooting in DC—a maze of security regulations and no tax incentives—most of the exteriors in the movie were actually shot in Cleveland. But the real National Air and Space Museum appears in the film as the site of a Captain America exhibit: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) checks out a gallery containing uniforms from his service during World War II. Though the exhibit was built elsewhere on a soundstage, the establishing shots of the Air and Space Museum were filmed on location last May—less than a minute of screentime that took months of planning. NASM communications director Claire Brown and pop-culture curator Margaret Weitekamp explain how the museum’s big-screen moment came together.
According to Brown, the process of coordinating the film shoot began in January 2013, when a location scout for Captain America sent a proposal to the museum’s communications office. Requests to film at the museum come in as much as six months in advance, she says. Staff members then review the proposal to determine whether the shoot is technically feasible and whether the project is consistent with the museum’s mission. NASM only considers films that are appropriate for family audiences, with MPAA ratings up to PG-13. (The last feature film to shoot in the space was 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Before that, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen filmed at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.) A curator checks the script for factual inaccuracies or concerns about the museum’s depiction, which can be grounds for denying a filming request. For Captain America, one of the year’s most highly anticipated films, NASM staffers were only permitted to see three pages of the script—the parts that involved the museum—and were required to sign confidentiality agreements. Once the museum signed off on the project, the filmmakers were cleared to shoot on May 16.
The film crew loaded some of their equipment into the space the night before and finished setting up on the afternoon of the 16th, a few hours before the museum closed at 5:30 PM. Parts of the central gallery, Milestones of Flight, closed early, while extras prepared in hair and makeup outside. A collections staffer and a curator were there to walk the film crew through the space, help them set up the shot, and—most important—make sure they didn’t bump into any artifacts.
The filmmakers wanted a shot that swooped across the entire gallery space, establishing that Steve Rogers was visiting the National Air and Space Museum. A camera, mounted on a crane in the museum’s main concourse, would make an arc from the Spirit of St. Louis to the center of the space. Weitekamp was with the camera operator the whole time to keep an eye on where the crane was swinging. “They were very cautious,” she says. “They made a point of saying [that] the camera itself is tremendously expensive, so they were equally invested in not banging it into anything.”
The scene was set during the day, so the crew had only a few hours of sunlight to get the shot. Once it was set up, Weitekamp recalls, “they were able to do the same arc over and over and over as they reset the extras to get different flavors of the shot that they wanted.” After less than three hours of filming, the crew wrapped around 8 PM and packed up for the next shoot of the night, in Dupont Circle. All told, the Smithsonian shoot took ten hours to produce a couple seconds of film.
Weitekamp didn’t get to meet any of the stars of the movie, but she did get a sneak peek at the fake Captain America exhibit. It contained approximately 35 objects, mostly memorabilia of Captain America’s World War II unit, and covered 12,000 square feet—more than double the size of NASM’s largest gallery. “The designer had the luxury of not being constrained by any of our physical space,” says Weitekamp.
Though the museum has curated pop-culture exhibits in the past, Weitekamp says it has no plans to produce any tie-in programs with the Avengers series. “Our focus is on spaceflight, and this is a very earthbound film,” she says.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of Felix Baumgartner’s record-smashing, 24-mile Red Bull Stratos skydive on October 14, 2012, was also the one thing keeping him alive: his suit. “It was like breathing through a pillow,” the 44-year-old Austrian told an audience at the National Air and Space Museum Tuesday. His claustrophobia inside the pressurized suit got so bad that he fled to an airport in 2010 before he was supposed to take an endurance test, and flew back to Austria. “That was probably the worst moment of my life,” he said. “I was always trying to find my limit, and at that moment, I found it.”
With the help of a psychiatrist he eventually triumphed, and the suit he wore when he broke the sound barrier goes on display Wednesday at the Smithsonian museum, alongside the balloon gondola that carried him above the earth. A panel including Baumgartner, Colonel Joe Kittinger (Baumgartner’s capsule communicator and the previous world-record holder for freefalling), and technical project director Art Thompson discussed the genesis of the project and its future legacy both for military servicemen and for civilians as commercial spaceflight becomes a reality.
Baumgartner’s parachute was the first parachute designed for supersonic freefall, and although his suit was a standard S1034 pressurized space suit, it had to be reconfigured at the hip and arm sockets to allow Baumgartner the posture he required for the jump. His mentor was Kittinger, now 85, who had previously managed a jump from 100,000 feet above the earth in 1960 without a pressurized cabin, meaning he was exposed to temperatures of -94 degrees Fahrenheit—“pretty cold for a redneck,” Kittinger said.
Unlike Kittinger, who only had 33 parachute jumps under his belt when he took his record-breaking jump, Baumgartner had thousands. But the Austrian daredevil initially struggled when it came to convincing his technical crew he was serious. “We had no respect from these guys, because we were an energy-drink company and a base jumper,” he said. “I don’t think in the beginning they really believed in what we wanted to do.”
Ultimately, though, the jump became entirely a team effort; Baumgartner described Kittinger’s voice in his ear on the way up as the thing that helped him the most. “We had his life in our hands, and we knew it,” said Kittinger. Baumgartner described how from the minute he opened the cabin door, he knew he was 50 percent less safe, thanks to his interior environment now being as dangerous as the environment outside it. “I took a last look at the beauty of the earth,” he said. “I could see the curve of the earth, and I looked up at the black sky, which was completely different from normal sky, and I took a jump into the unknown.”
After the panel discussion, the audience asked questions, including what Baumgartner did the night before he jumped. He laughed, then looked uncomfortable. “Are there kids in the audience?” he asked, before describing how he knew there was no way he was going to get any sleep. He was also asked what his thoughts were as he made the jump. “I was so disciplined, so focused, that there wasn’t a lot room left for emotions,” he said. “I was focused on what was coming.”
“Red Bull Stratos: Mission to the Edge of Space,” featuring Felix Baumgartner’s pressurized balloon gondola and suit, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall until May 26, and will eventually be moved permanently to the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles airport. For more information, visit the museum’s website.
Dr. David Skorton, a cardiologist who’s been president of Cornell University since 2006, is the next secretary of the Smithsonian, the institution announced today. He takes over from G. Wayne Clough, who announced his retirement last year.
Like Clough, who was president of Georgia Tech from 1994 to 2008, Skorton hails from an academic background. He spent three years as president of the University of Iowa before taking the top post at Cornell in 2006. During his eight years at the Ivy League school, Skorton raised more than $5 billion for Cornell while also serving as a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College and a professor in biomedical engineering at Cornell’s College of Engineering.
Through March 21, Washington Project for the Arts presents its annual Art Auction Exhibition at Artisphere. The showcase of local artists features work by Holly Bass, Meaghan Carpenter, Frank Hallam Day, Victoria F. Gaitan, Patrick McDonough, and others.
“Garry Winogrand,” at the National Gallery of Art through June 8, features 160 photographs making up a retrospective of the American street photographer’s career, from images taken at the Bronx Zoo in the 1960s to pictures of John F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, and more.
Through July 31, the Kreeger Museum celebrates its 20th anniversary with “K@20,” an exhibition of work by 14 area artists, each of whom has exhibited at the museum over its two-decade history. The show features work by Gene Davis, Ledelle Moe, Jann Rosen-Queralt, and more.
“Made in the USA: American Masters From the Phillips Collection, 1850-1970” is at the Phillips through August 31, celebrating the return home of some 200-plus of the museum’s most compelling works of American art. Among the 120 artists included are Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Edward Hopper.
“Directions: Jeremy Deller” continues through July 31 at the Hirshhorn, featuring “English Magic,” a 14-minute video by the British conceptual artist.
“Cool and Collected: Recent Acquisitions,” at the National Building Museum from March 8 through May 2015, allows the museum to show off additions to its collection, including a “kaleidoscope dollhouse” by Laurie Simmons (a.k.a. the mother of Girls creator Lena Dunham) and Peter Wheelwright, as well as work by local sculptor Raymond Kaskey.
“Pop Art Prints,” on display March 21 through August 31 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, offers a rare look at 39 prints from its collection, including work by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and Jasper Johns.
Opening at the Corcoran March 22 are “Rineke Djikstra: The Crazyhouse,” a video installation of young adults dancing and singing for the artist at a nightclub in Liverpool, and “Jenny Steinkamp and Jimmy Johnson: Loop,” an immersive video-and-sound installation originally commissioned by the museum in 2000.
James Dean had it. So did Muhammad Ali. John Travolta had it and lost it. Defining “cool” is a task that has challenged teenagers and lexicographers alike for generations. Tulane University historian Joel Dinerstein and then-National Portrait Gallery curator Frank H. Goodyear III had been casually discussing an exhibition about the history of cool for several years, but it wasn’t till a politician named Barack Obama entered the picture that they wrote a proposal.
“There was a lot of conversation about Obama’s cool during the lead-up to the 2008 election,” Goodyear says. “We thought what we should do was excavate the origins and evolution of that particular persona.” The result is “American Cool,” an exhibit of photographs—opening February 7 at the Portrait Gallery—that looks at 100 people who have embodied cool at one point or another, from Greta Garbo and James Cagney to Patti Smith and Jay-Z.
The show’s four sections explore the roots of cool, its birth in the ’40s and ’50s, its links to the counterculture in the ’60s and ’70s, and cool from the ’80s to today. Dinerstein and Goodyear had four criteria: Subjects had to have made an obvious contribution in their field, have had some kind of transgressive or rebellious side, and have had a lasting impact beyond their generation; most important, there had to be a good picture of them available.
Some were obvious choices, others more contentious. “Frank and I worked incredibly harmoniously, but there were disagreements,” Dinerstein says. “We had a huge argument over John Travolta.” Says Goodyear: “While the movies he made in the mid- to late ’70s were resonant at that time, what I knew Travolta from was some fairly lame movies and his connection with Scientology.” So they took an academic approach and polled students between ages 18 and 21, who overwhelmingly agreed Travolta should be included. The same with rapper Missy Elliott, to whom students gave preference over Queen Latifah.
Besides exploring cool, the show examines how the rise of photography ran parallel to the word’s entry into the public consciousness. “Photography was the dominant visual medium during the midcentury when these figures were making their mark,” Goodyear says. “It was through photography that the public came to know them.” Among the highlights: images by Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Although Goodyear and Dinerstein agree Washington isn’t renowned as the center of cool, they think it’s a fitting location for the show. “Cool is central to the American self-concept,” Dinerstein says. “What better place than the nation’s capital and the Smithsonian?” But despite the fact that Obama’s election served as inspiration, the President didn’t make the cut. “When he was elected, the public perception of him—and to some degree his larger persona—changed,” Goodyear says. “As President, it’s impossible to be antiestablishment.”
Through September 7; npg.si.edu.
This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
Whether you’re of the school that thinks it’s genius or among the naysayers who think it’s a marketing ploy for a sequel that hardly needs more hype, the Newseum’s new show is kind of a big deal. “Anchorman: The Exhibit” opens tomorrow on the Pennsylvania Avenue museum’s second floor, and contains such relics as might get Ron Burgundy himself excited: original costumes, a model of Baxter the dog sporting pajamas, Sex Panther perfume, and even Ron’s jazz flute.
The show opens five weeks before the release of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s as much a promotional device as Ben & Jerry’s Scotchy Scotch Scotch ice cream or Will Ferrell’s in-character ads for the Dodge Durango. Still, “Anchorman: The Exhibit” offers a little more than just costumes and other artifacts enshrined inside glass cases of emotion. Scenes from the first movie are cross-referenced with snippets looking at TV news history, from the way news teams were promoted as gangs of friends you’d invite into your home to the sexism frequently experienced by female reporters. There’s also a segment exploring the real-life case of Twiggy the water-skiing squirrel, which reveals how consultants urged news producers in the ’70s to whip up their ratings with animal stories and other squishy human-interest features (here’s looking at you, BuzzFeed).
Is it a thought-provoking and insightful analysis of TV news in America? No. It’s an exhibit of costumes and props from a hugely successful cult movie. Visitors can film themselves playing anchormen and anchorladies from behind a replica of the Channel 4 newsdesk, and click on a touchscreen to see Ron Burgundy offer advice to prospective newsreaders, such as: “Drink plenty of fluids, and by fluids, I mean bourbon or gin.” Some of the unexpected inclusions are the most interesting—Ron Burgundy’s wallet contains an “American Excess” credit card, and Judd Apatow’s copy of the script is so tiny it’s hard to read. But it’s the most Instagrammable exhibit of the year, and that’s really all that matters.
“Anchorman: The Exhibit” opens November 14 at the Newseum. For more information, visit the Newseum’s website.
Through October 22, Washington will have the rare distinction of having not one but two works by Leonardo da Vinci on display.
Just across the Mall from the National Gallery, where da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’ Benci” has long been the only painting by the artist in the Western hemisphere, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Air and Space is displaying da Vinci’s “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” a 1505 document featuring writings and sketches on the subject of flight.
From September 13 through October 22, visitors can catch a glimpse of the real Codex in the Wright Brothers Gallery, and scroll through touch-screen computers that translate the document’s text, written in da Vinci’s signature “mirror” script.
The document is usually kept at the Biblioteca Reale in Turin, and has only been displayed outside of Italy a handful of times. In addition to notes, it includes sketches of birds in flight, and prefigures da Vinci’s observations on how humans might mimic them to achieve mechanized flight.
The loan is one highlight from Italy US 2013: Year of Italian Culture in the United States, a cultural alliance between the US and Italy that has seen Michelangelo’s David-Apollo on display in the National Gallery and Italian poems reproduced on Washington’s buses.
Admission to see the Codex is free, but timed tickets must be booked online for the first week of its exhibition, by phone at 866-868-7774 or online. For more information, visit the Air and Space Museum’s website.