Icon Obama: Shephard Fairey’s Obama Image Installed at the National Portrait Gallery

By: Garrett M. Graff

Long before there was President Obama, there was Icon Obama. There has never been a president or presidential candidate who has inspired art in the way that Obama has since his candidacy began.

Saturday morning, at the beginning of the four-day inaugural whirlwind that swept Washington, a well-heeled gaggle of art lovers poured into the atrium of the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the image that came to epitomize Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “Four days of history beginning to unfold, and we’re part of it,” explained Martin Sullivan, the Portrait Gallery director.

Shephard Fairey, the Los Angeles-based street artist who earlier made it big with his “Obey” Andre the Giant posters and then crafted the now-iconic Obama “Hope” and “Progress” posters, was on hand to witness a rare personal triumph: his image becoming part of the museum’s permanent collection. Washington power couple Heather and Tony Podesta bought the original and donated it to the museum to honor Mary K. Podesta, Tony’s mother.

The ceremony, which began hours before the gallery opened for the inaugural weekend crowds and featured a smorgasbord of muffins, yogurt parfaits, and mimosas, brought together a crowd of Washington influentials, art lovers, and weekend guests ranging from actress Anna Deavere Smith to members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Fairey, in his remarks, said he was glad to see his work acknowledged and—as much as he hoped to see Obama himself display a Fairey original—he understood his style didn’t exactly fit the decor of the White House. “I’m glad everyone else could share in this, but I really did it for my kids,” he told the crowd.

Of course, the “art” on display at the event wasn’t all on the walls. Many a woman at the event was sporting an Ann Hand inaugural pin, which seems to have been the official accessory of the weekend.

>> See all inaugural ball coverage 

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