Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s Blockbuster Obama Paintings Nearly Doubled the National Portrait Gallery’s Attendance in 2018

The museum saw 2.1 million visitors last fiscal year.

Visitor in America’s Presidents gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Paul Morigi/courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Visitor in America’s Presidents gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Paul Morigi/courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

It’s been a blockbuster year for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, which today announced that attendance for the past fiscal year topped two million guests, many of whom made the trip to see the hit paintings of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. It’s a huge upswing in visitor numbers, which had been averaging just 1.1 million annually since 2013. Total attendance for the 2018 fiscal year was 2,118,434.

“The National Portrait Gallery’s increased attendance reflects the fact that we are a museum for people, about people, by people,” said museum director Kim Sajet in a statement. “The Portrait Gallery is one of the most revisited and cross-generational museums in Washington, DC, with 66 percent of attendees representing millennials or Gen-X individuals whom also reflect the racial diversity of these groups across the country at large. Portraiture as an art form is ‘hot’ right now, and I take pride in believing my amazing colleagues have played a role in making it so popular!”

The Obama paintings, the first official presidential portraits ever commissioned from African American artists, were unveiled to great fanfare in February. They became an immediate attendance draw, with a more than 300 percent increase in visitors, year over year, over President’s Day Weekend just after the works’ debut—up to 50,024 from 16,041. In March, the museum was forced to move the former first lady’s painting to a larger room to accommodate the crowds.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald at the unveiling of the Obamas' official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on February 12, 2018. Photo by Pete Souza.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald at the unveiling of the Obamas’ official portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on February 12, 2018. Photo by Pete Souza.

The museum also grew digitally in 2018, with social media followers increasing 53 percent on Twitter, 19 percent on Facebook, and 54 percent on Instagram, over the past fiscal year.

Over its 50-year existence, the NPG has amassed a collection of over 23,000 works, with a new policy introduced in 2013 ensuring that half of all acquisitions feature diverse subjects or artists. The gallery’s efforts to attract diverse audiences also include the organization of nine dual-language exhibitions as part of a larger effort to become a bilingual institution, hiring Taína Caragol as a full-time curator of Latino art and history, and appointing the Smithsonian’s first choreographer-in-residence, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company. It is also the first Smithsonian institution to hire a full-time accessibility program specialist, creating special programming for the vision impaired and children on the autism spectrum.

News of the soaring attendance numbers comes just in time for the museum’s 50th-anniversary celebrations, which kick off this Friday. This weekend, visitors to the museum will be treated to free chocolates with a special 50th-anniversary logo ahead of the institution’s official birthday on October 7—while supplies last, of course.


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