So Many People Want to See Michelle Obama’s Portrait They Had to Move It to a Bigger Room

Attendance at the National Portrait Gallery has been off the charts since the Obamas' official portraits were unveiled last month.

Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
Amy Sherald, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Amy Sherald’s official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama has been such a hit among visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, that the museum has been forced to relocate it to a more spacious room.

The NPG announced the move earlier this month, on Twitter. Previously displayed along with other recent acquisitions on the first floor, the striking painting can now be seen in the 20th-Century Americans galleries on the third level.

“We always planned to have the portrait on long-term view, and relocated the work to the third floor sooner than anticipated to provide a more spacious viewing experience due to the high volume of visitors,” a representative of the museum told artnet News in an email. “A fun fact, this work is now off of the Great Hall, which was the home to Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, and was at one time the longest room in America! It was also used as a hospital during the Civil War, where Walt Whitman was one of many who helped nurse soldiers back to life.”

Sherald’s piece, with its use of her signature gray tones for the first lady’s skin, was unveiled alongside Kehinde Wiley‘s unusually colorful portrait of former President Barack Obama, seated in front of a leafy green background. Critics and social media commentators have had their issues with the works, but the response from museum visitors has been overwhelming.

Even though the portraits only went on view February 12, midway through an already-short month, the NPG saw its highest monthly visitor total in three years, according to the museum. Among the 176,700 visitors, 50,024 of them passed though the museum doors on President’s Weekend alone—an over 300 percent increase over the same holiday weekend the previous year.

Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Kehinde Wiley, Barack Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

And the uptick in attendance doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon. CNN reported that the museum welcomed nearly 45,000 visitors between last Thursday and Sunday.

The limelight is also spilling over onto Sherald, who, it was announced yesterday, is joining Hauser & Wirth gallery. The artist’s first major solo museum exhibition opens at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in May.

Donna Hines & I made a pilgrimage today and we were delighted to wait in line behind this fellow art lover & hopeful patriot.

Posted by Ben Hines on Thursday, March 1, 2018

Among those captivated by Sherald’s majestic vision of Obama was a two-year-old girl named Parker Curry. A photograph of her staring in awe at the canvas went viral on social media earlier this month, and Obama later met with the toddler, dancing with her to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”

“[Parker] believes Michelle Obama is a queen, and she wants to be a queen as well,” the girl’s mother, Jessica Curry told CNN. “As a female and as a girl of color, It’s really important that I show her people who look like her that are doing amazing things and are making history so that she knows she can do it.”

Sherald and Wiley are the first African American artists to be commissioned to create official portraits of the first lady and the president.


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