The Obama Portraits Have Boosted Attendance to the National Portrait Gallery by More Than 300 Percent

Since the paintings went on view last Tuesday, 72,146 people have visited the museum.

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

The lines were out the door at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, this weekend, as crowds flocked to see the new official portraits for former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The two paintings, by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, were unveiled to great fanfare last week, becoming a viral sensation.

The Obamas made history by commissioning the first African-American artists to paint official portraits for the president and the first lady. The couple has a strong interest in contemporary art, which is reflected in the works, both a marked departure from the traditional representation figurative painting typically favored by presidential portraitists. Wiley painted Barack seated against a vibrant background of green foliage, while Sherald referenced black-and-white photography by rendering Michelle’s skin in shades of gray.

A representative from the museum told artnet News that the institution’s website has seen a huge uptick in traffic thanks to the new portraits. Over the past year, the average number of daily sessions was just 1,875. By comparison, the NPG is averaging 23,680 web visits per day for the month of February. That peaked last week, with 399,192 visits between Sunday, February 11, and Thursday, February 15, or 79,838 sessions per day. (The new #myNPG hashtag, introduced alongside the new portraits, also racked up 98 million impressions on Twitter and 33.3 million on Instagram.)

The works’ online success has translated into the real-world attendance, where the NPG saw a 311 percent increase in visitors year over year for President’s Day Weekend. Compared to 16,041 visitors over the same three days in 2017, the holiday weekend saw 50,024 guests cross the threshold this year, with over 20,000 on Sunday alone. Since the paintings went on view Tuesday, 72,146 people have visited the museum.

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 by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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.

With lines out the door, guests waited as long as 90 minutes for their chance to see Wiley’s painting, which is on view in the “America’s Presidents” gallery. The Sherald canvas can be seen on the first floor with other recent acquisitions.

Though the critics—and social media commentators—have been divided on the artworks’ merit, the NPG is happy to have a conversation-provoking hit on their hands. “What I loved most about it is people are talking about portraiture,” NPG director Kim Sajet told the Washington Post. “There was a lot of intrigue about them, they had heard about them, and they had a lot of questions.”


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