The National Portrait Gallery unveiled its official portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama nearly two years ago. Since then, the gallery reports that attendance has nearly doubled.
Next summer, the portraits will hit the road to reach an even wider audience.
In Washington, D.C., dozens of people line up behind velvet ropes every day to admire artist Kehinde Wiley's interpretation of the former president. It features Obama sitting at the edge of a wooden chair, surrounded by lush foliage. Pink and white flowers are dispersed across the canvas.
"I think that it demonstrates the one drop of color that we've had in our 45 presidents, which is significant in its own way," says Michael R. Jackson, one of many visitors at the gallery on a recent afternoon.
Upstairs, near 20th century figures such as Toni Morrison and LL Cool J, the portrait Amy Sherald painted of Michelle Obama is displayed behind its own ropes. The former first lady poses against a pastel blue background, wearing a geometric dress of pink, yellow, black and white.
Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, explains that the ropes and extra security framing the portraits are partially to control the crowds that gather, but also to provide an opportunity for people to take photos in front of the paintings without interruptions.
She credits Wiley and Sherald's artistic vision for much of the popularity of the pictures, which are a departure from some of the more conventional presidential portraits of the past.
"Portraiture used to be seen as this old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, really for dead white people kind of way of painting," she says. "And it's just not true, and they've completely changed that and put it on its head."
Sajet says she began receiving calls from curators at other museums shortly after the unveiling, asking for an opportunity to host the artworks temporarily. Now five cities have been selected for the yearlong tour that kicks off in June of next year: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston.
The Art Institute of Chicago will be the first stop.
"We have such a strong connection to the Obamas," says Kati Murphy, the executive director of public affairs at the institute. "They had their first date at the institute. Michelle Obama used to come to the museum as a kid with her family."
Each city will host the portraits for roughly two months. And because admission is free at the National Portrait Gallery, Sajet says she's working with each museum to bring costs down and give as many people as possible a chance to see them in person — especially students and young children.
Two years ago, a photo of then 2-year-old Parker Curry staring up at the Michelle Obama portrait in awe went viral. Curry later got the opportunity to meet the former first lady and even had a children's book about the experience published.
That's what drew Barbara Whitman to the gallery on a recent visit from New York.
"My takeaway from it is they both are such modern portraits and they really capture the time — the modern spirit of that presidency and how they took us to a new place," she says. "Hopefully we can continue going to new places."
The Obama portraits are not the first to go on tour, but Sajet still says there's something unique about their impact. Attendance at the National Portrait Gallery has nearly doubled since their debut.
"[Barack Obama's portrait] is much larger than I expected, and the colors are very beautiful, much more than I expected, too," says visitor Mary Ruth. "People need to see it in person versus actually seeing it on a photo on their computer screen."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's been two years since the National Portrait Gallery unveiled its official portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama. The gallery says attendance has nearly doubled since then. And now, as NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento reports, the popular paintings are heading out on tour.
ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Every day of the week, people from all over the country line up behind velvet ropes to see Barack Obama's presidential portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. There's a bright spotlight shining on the painting. In it, the former president sits at the edge of a wooden chair. He's surrounded by lush green leaves with pink and white flowers sprinkled across the canvas.
KELLIE HOLMES: It's fantastic and magnetic, and it makes me miss him a lot (laughter).
LYNNE GRANT: It's really, like, mesmerizing to look at.
ANTO SAGAYARAJ: Just all the color. It looks alive, you know what I mean?
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's Kellie Holmes from Charleston, Lynne Grant from Miami and Anto Sagayaraj from Chicago. Upstairs, Michelle Obama's portrait hangs among 20th century figures like Toni Morrison and LL Cool J. The former first lady sits against a pastel blue background wearing a dress with geometric patterns of pink, yellow, black and white.
BARBARA WHITMAN: Remember the famous picture of the little girl standing in front of it?
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's Barbara Whitman (ph) of New York referring to the viral photo of 2-year-old Parker Curry staring up at the portrait in awe.
WHITMAN: And that just made me want to come and see it with my own eyes.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were the first African American artists to be commissioned by the gallery for the official portraits of a former president and first lady. Gallery director Kim Sajet credits their artistic vision for the paintings' popularity.
KIM SAJET: You know, portraiture used to be seen as this old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, like, you know, ready for dead white people kind of way of painting. And it's just not true. And they completely changed that and put it on its head.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That intense interest in the former president and first lady's portraits is why the gallery recently announced the paintings will be going on a yearlong tour starting in June of next year. They'll travel to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston for two months each. Then they'll return to Washington in summer 2022.
Kati Murphy is with the Art Institute of Chicago, which will be the first stop of the tour to coincide with Barack Obama's 60th birthday.
KATI MURPHY: We have such a strong connection to the Obamas. They had their first date at the Art Institute. Michelle Obama used to come to the museum as a kid with her family.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: In Washington, people can come see the paintings for free, so Sajet says the National Portrait Gallery is working with each museum to bring admission fees down.
SAJET: For us, it's all about the access. And, you know, we really want as many people to be able to get the opportunity to see them. And if we can reduce those costs, that would be fantastic.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: The Obama portraits are not the first to go on tour, but Sajet says there's something unique about the impact they have on visitors to the museum. And next year, people across the country will get the chance to experience that for themselves.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News, Washington.
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