Art treasure troves reopen after 6 years

WASHINGTON – Two of America’s great art museums reopened Saturday after a six-year, $283 million makeover that transformed the historic building they share, giving them more space to exhibit their collections.

Hundreds of art enthusiasts were welcomed by actors dressed as historical figures and characters from famous paintings, along with a fife and drum corps, as they toured the National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum in the Smithsonian Institution’s restored Old Patent Office Building.

“There’s no place like home; it’s great to be back here,” said Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

Since the two museums closed in 2000, Pachter and Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum, have overseen restoration and cleaning of thousands of pieces of art for display in the brighter, larger exhibit spaces of the 170-year-old building.

The renovations also allow visitors to see some of the work that used to go on behind the scenes.

“We’ve taken our five conservation labs and studios and put them all behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls,” said Broun.

Though the museums retain their separate names, the building is now called the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

The building, north of the National Mall, did not suffer any water damage from last week’s torrential rains, unlike the National Archives and some other major federal buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The new construction has helped make the building watertight,” said Bethany Bentley, a portrait gallery spokeswoman.

The added space will allow the American Art Museum to display about 5,000 of its 41,000 pieces. Among the 7,000 artists represented in its collections are many who worked as illustrators for newspapers or producers of advertising art but still steered popular art in new directions.

“We’ve taken 3,400 works that used to be in storage in a warehouse, and we’ve put them into tall glass cases in this beautiful historic setting,” Broun said.

The National Portrait Gallery also has more space, enabling it to open with 14 exhibits drawn from its collection of 19,400 works, including 300 years’ worth of historic portraits and photographs.

“We not only have the faces of the famous here, but we’ve also got thousands of works that capture the souls and spirits of ordinary Americans,” Pachter said.

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