Reduced to its bare particulars, it can sound like one of the strangest museums in the world. It holds no special exhibitions, it has no web site, admission to the public is free, but it can take as long as six months to get in. For those who succeed in getting in, there are treasures on the order of John Singer Sargent, Asher B. Durand and Jacob Lawrence to be seen. But works by two of the most famous artists in the collection, Cézanne (a still life and a handful of landscapes) and Monet (a gauzy view of the Seine), are kept out of public view. For a few years the collection’s lone Grandma Moses painting was seen almost exclusively by a pre-teenage girl from Georgia named Amy Carter and her friends. Add to all this the longstanding tradition that privileged guests are allowed to use some of the historical artifacts as desks and to eat off of others, and it can be a curator’s nightmare. But it is never boring, caring for the collection of the 210-year-old museum that one of its residents, Thomas Jefferson, described as palatial enough for “two emperors, one pope and the Grand Lama,” and a later one, Harry S. Truman, bemoaned as “a great white jail.”
“It is a museum but it’s also the White House, and so it’s a working house,” said William G. Allman, who has worked in the curator’s office here for 35 years, and has been chief curator since 2002. “There are times when you run screaming, telling somebody, ‘You can’t put those hot television lights up against the portrait of Washington!’ You worry about someone spilling a drink on something. Sometimes somebody breaks a piece of furniture. But it’s the nature of it. It’s a place where people actually live.” As if to underscore his point a black-and-white blur, Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog, could be seen through the window, racing across the South Lawn, for the moment not posing his own threat to the art in the house that has become his own.
Like most of his six predecessors since the office of the White House curator was created by Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961, Mr. Allman has worked almost as hard at keeping a low profile as he does at overseeing the 50,000 objects that are cataloged as part of the house’s permanent collection, from the fish forks in the state silver service to the 1938 Steinway grand piano with heroic gold-leafed eagles for legs. “The residence staff here prides itself on being behind the scenes,” he said.
But this year marks the 50th anniversary of both the curator’s office and the White House Historical Association, the non-profit organization that supports the acquisition and conservation of White House art and artifacts. And so Mr. Allman was recently persuaded by Obama staffers to emerge from the relative anonymity of his office (in a windowless former servants’ dining room, near the White House bowling alley on the ground floor) and to talk about the role he has played in shaping the house’s art and décor through seven administrations (which explains how he remembers that Grandma Moses’s pastoral scene “July Fourth” once graced Amy Carter’s bedroom). On a recent sunny afternoon he showed a visitor around the hushed and largely deserted ground floor and first floor of the house, through the historic public rooms, Blue, Green, Red, East, that are the nation’s domestic patrimony and the curator’s primary responsibility.
The second and third floors, the first family’s residence, are less his domain, though he advises on its art and décor. And especially since 2009, when the Obamas made
headlines by borrowing pieces by the kind of adventurous contemporary artists, including Ed Ruscha, Glenn Ligon and Susan Rothenberg, who had never been seen before in the White House, the dialogue between the upper and lower levels of the house has begun to change aesthetic assumptions here in ways that Mr. Allman said he had never experienced before. It has, for example, led to a thorough modernization of the wish list that the White House Historical Association and the curator’s office keep (along with the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, appointed by the president) to guide their purchases of works by American artists not yet represented in the house’s permanent collection. Before the Obama administration the list had not yet made its way, art-historically, up to Abstract Expressionism. It included Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and other lyrical 20th century realists, and, in the work of Arthur Dove, it dipped one toe tentatively into abstraction. There are still no purely abstract works in the collection now, though a Georgia O’Keeffe donated in 1998 plays with it, those that the Obamas added are all on loan from other museums and galleries.
“We realized as we came into an administration that had more of an affection for abstract art that we really needed to update our list,” Mr. Allman said. So now that list is longer, about 50 artists, and includes New York School names like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, along with others like Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. The change has prompted Mr. Allman, 58, whose main expertise lies mostly in silver and furniture, to survey the 18th and 19th century portraits and landscapes on the house’s walls and for the first time to try envisioning something like Franz Kline’s volcanic black-on-white slashes hanging in their august company. “Do we think those things are going to go together?” he said. “Hmm. Maybe not now, but that’s the nice thing about the kind of place this is, that maybe someday it will.”
Mr. Allman, whose job requires a phenomenal breadth of historical knowledge, much of it having little to do with art, concedes that he has never had to focus much on American art made during his lifetime. He recounted an exchange with Michael Smith, the California decorator who advises the Obamas and who helped them pick the art for their living spaces. “Michael said to me, ‘Now you’re a modern art expert,’ ” he recalled. “And I said, ‘How did that happen?’” But while there might be gaps in his expertise, many who have worked with him over the years say that Mr. Allman, a boyish-faced man with an unabashedly folksy manner, has mastered a kind of diplomatic dexterity that may be more important to his job.
In a historic house that is continuously inhabited, and always under political scrutiny, art decisions are never just aesthetic. When President Obama requested that a portrait of Truman replace one of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Cabinet Room, he was in essence reversing a Bush administration policy (one that had also been the policy of the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush White Houses). When the first lady changed her mind in 2009 about hanging a painting by the African-American artist Alma W. Thomas in her office, some critics accused her of giving in to conservative commentators who criticized the painting as a fraud because it reworked and paid homage to a famous Matisse collage. The first lady’s office took great pains to say that the removal had nothing to do with politics; the painting just didn’t fit the space where it had been intended to hang.
Leslie Greene Bowman, a former member of the White House preservation committee and president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, recounted a reupholstery crisis several years ago involving the red Empire chairs in the second-floor Cross Hall in the White House, a frequent stage for televised events. The historically accurate red chosen for the fabric looked practically nuclear on camera. So Mr. Allman quietly managed to find a shade that would horrify neither historians nor network producers. “It’s the kind of situation where lots of curators would have put their foot down, but Bill has a sense of humor about these things,” she said. “It was color theory in action. These are the kinds of challenges that curators never have to face in a regular museum,” she said. Mr. Allman likes to point out that while it might not be a regular museum, the White House is indeed a museum under federal legislation, Public Law 87-286, passed in 1961. And in 1988 it was even accredited by the American Association of Museums. “Now I think that in the process they conceded that we didn’t meet some of their standards,” he said, smiling. “Most museums have all these complicated long-range plans. Our long-range plan? It’s pretty much just to make it through the next inauguration.”
Courtesy of Art Knowledge News.