The Obama Presidential Portraits, Which Smashed Attendance Records in DC, Will Travel the US on a Five-Museum Tour

The National Portrait Gallery's director credits Brooklyn Museum's Anne Pasternak for floating the idea.

Former US President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand next to their newly unveiled portraits during a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on February 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

The portraits of president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama have been a windfall for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in Washington, DC, smashing attendance records and serving as a site for many an emotional visit. Now, the two paintings, done by African American artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, are hitting the road.

Beginning in June 2021, the portraits will travel to five museums across the country, stopping at each for roughly two months: the Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the High Museum of Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

It’s not unprecedented for presidential portraits to travel. An entire exhibition of them, “Portraits of the Presidents from the National Portrait Gallery,” hit numerous cities between 2000 and 2005, for instance. The famous “Lansdowne” portrait of President George Washington was once sent out to seven venues between 2002 and 2004.

Still, for the Obama portraits to travel so soon after their completion is something of a rarity. 

Kim Sajet, Director of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, attends the 2019 American Portrait Gala at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery on November 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. Photo: Shannon Finney/Getty Images.

“I have to give credit to Anne Pasternak at the Brooklyn Museum,” the NPG’s director, Kim Sajet, tells Artnet News. “She rang me within a couple of weeks within the unveiling and said, ‘When can they come to our place?’ We hadn’t thought about touring them until then.”

The public furor around the portraits was at an all-time high then and so the conversation was put on a back burner. But other directors started to reach out with the same request. So did the artists.

“I remember Amy Sherald saying, ‘As a young girl in Atlanta, there was no way I could afford to go to Washington to see a work like that,” Sajet recalls. Soon after that, she reached back out to her museum director colleagues and set up the tour. “It was the easiest couple of calls I’ve ever made,” she says.

The tour destinations were chosen largely for their connection to the artists and the Obamas, explains Sajet. The first stop, the Art Institute of Chicago (June 18–August 15, 2021), lives in Obama’s hometown and will coincide with the former Commander-in-Chief’s 60th birthday. The paintings will then travel to Brooklyn (August 27–October 24, 2021), where Wiley’s studio is based, and Los Angeles, where he was born. 

Artist Kehinde Wiley, left, and Amy Sherald attend their official portrait unveiling of former U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Atlanta, Sherald’s old stomping grounds, will follow as the portraits stop at the High Museum of Art (January 14–March 13, 2022), before moving on to Houston (March 25–May 30, 2022), the final stop of the tour.

The presidential portraits, unveiled two years ago next month, more than doubled the NPG’s attendance figures, a pattern still going strong today. Roughly 30,000 people a day trekked to see the paintings after they debuted in the museums. Sajet said the staff members were coming in on weekends and off days to meet the demand, and that six month’s worth of brochures were gone in six weeks. 

To date, the portraits have been visited by over 4 million people in total. 

“Because of the attention the portraits brought to the museum, so many people discovered Portrait Gallery for the first time,” says Sajet. “They came to see the portraits and then stayed to look at everything else. I hope that is exactly what will happen at the museums where they’ll go on tour.”

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