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Art and Culture

David and Art - “Visiting the Nation’s Art Collection”


The National Gallery of Art, one of the country’s best museums, has reopened after a long closure.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in Washington DC doing research at the library of Congress. The library had just reopened post pandemic and because they were limiting the number of researchers who could be in the reading room at any one time, people had to reserve specific three-hour blocks each day, either morning or afternoon; you couldn’t just go in and stay all day. For five days in a row, I was there from 9:30 to 12:30 which meant for five days in a row, I had to find something to do after 1230 until the friend with whom I was staying got off work.

Much to my happiness, part of the National Gallery of Art had opened back up when I got there. They were doing timed admissions, so I had to go online and reserve a spot, but it was no problem at all and I wound up going three days in a row. I don’t think I’ve ever done that with a museum before.

If you’ve ever been to the National Gallery, you know that there are two buildings:  a West Building and a newer East building. The East building had not opened back up when I was there (although it has now) so I was limited in what I could see.

That’s hardly worthy of a complaint however because the National Gallery of Art has a tremendous collection, one of the best in the world, even if you exclude the East building, which basically covers the twentieth century.  The other one houses basically everything in the gallery’s collections up until the advent of modernism.  Here you will find, among other things, the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in North, Central, or South America.

The National Gallery is often overshadowed by the other impressive museums there with it on the national mall.  But it’s got a story all its own.

The genesis of the National Gallery of Art came from Andrew W. Mellon, who served as US Treasury Secretary under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. He was also an avid art collector and in 1937, offered his collection to the United States, along with money to build a building in which to exhibit it all.  A site was chosen there on the national mall and the grand marble building—designed by the same architect who designed the Jefferson Memorial—opened in 1941, eight months before the US entered World War II.  And its collection immediately began to grow.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, the National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian Institution, and it’s consequently funded separately.  (The Smithsonian has its own art museum called the “Smithsonian American Art Museum” located elsewhere in the city.). The government provides annual funds for the National Gallery’s operations and the maintenance of its buildings.  Admission is absolutely free, something that sets it apart from almost every other major art museum in the country.

Let’s come back to the National Gallery next week.