Picture's Fading for Taxpayer-Funded Vanity Portraits
When it comes to portrait painting, the arc of history has bent toward the taxpayer's wallet.
In late 15th century Florence, members of the fabled house of Medici paid artists such as Sandro Botticelli to produce portraits of themselves worthy the world’s greatest museums. Today American taxpayers spend millions of dollars on portraits of government bureaucrats.
Most are hidden from public view, which may be a blessing, according to Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who notes, “I’m not so sure the public cares who the secretary of agriculture was 10 years ago.”
Cassidy wants to end such indulgences permanently. In recent years, he has managed to attach a rider to appropriations bills barring the use of public money for portraits of Washington officials. Now's he's aiming to stop it outright with his Eliminating Government-Funded Oil Painting Act, or the EGO Act, which recently passed out of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The act’s cheeky acronym captures what’s really at play so far as Cassidy is concerned.
“We’re not against portraiture, and we understand a painting of a president, say, might be priceless,” he said. “But you can’t tell me we should pay for a portrait of an EPA director that hangs in some back hallway where people can’t find it or the public doesn’t have access.”
In 2012, when then-Rep. Cassidy first pushed a law banning the portraits, his communications director, John Cummins, went looking for the painting of EPA head Lisa Jackson, which cost taxpayers $40,000. He couldn’t find it. And that was with his congressional ID.
“The security guard had no idea what we were talking about,” Cummins said.
Just how much is spent on these scattered paintings is unclear. The funding doesn’t come from a single agency budget, but instead from different departments. When Jackson’s pricey oil portrait attracted some press attention in 2012, the Washington Times reported that various federal entities had dropped $180,000 on portraits in the past year, including $41,200 for one of Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and $22,500 for one of Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack.
Jackson, now an executive with Apple in California, did not respond to e-mails or a message left with her assistant, who said she was traveling.
A handful of portraits of historic American figures are priceless and enjoy a prominent home. Gilbert Stuart’s canvases of the Founding Fathers, for instance, grace some of the world’s top museums. Norman Rockwell painted Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, among other sitting or future presidents. And John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, which appears in backgrounds for the TV series “House of Cards” and “The West Wing,” has become a national icon. Well-known New York critic Terry Teachout called the TR portrait “indisputably museum-worthy,” but said that example is the rare exception.
“I can answer your question very quickly: the answer is no, there is no market for official portraits of politicians, which are notorious for their lack of artistic distinction,” Teachout told RealClearInvestigations. “Below [Sargent’s] level of artistic quality and historical significance, nobody – absolutely nobody – gives a damn about official portraits of American politicians. They are never sold, never displayed, never discussed. Frankly, I’m surprised that they even get painted anymore, and I can’t think of a single good reason why the taxpayers should underwrite their continuing production.”
Presidents would be covered by the EGO Act but Cassidy doubts that will be a problem. Such portraits are usually commissioned with private funds, he said. The EGO Act’s primary target is paintings of Cabinet members, pictures only the government would pay for.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery works with the White House on commissioning an artist to do a portrait of each president and first lady. But “we do not have portraits of Cabinet members or other government officials at the Smithsonian,” said Linda St. Thomas, its chief spokesperson. “I doubt it is a collection anywhere in D.C.”
When Cassidy first pushed the EGO Act, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wouldn’t allow it to come up for a vote. Cassidy was suspicious of that hold. But Gavin Glakas, the artist who painted Reid’s portrait as well as that of fellow Democrat Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman, said his work was paid for privately. The late Skelton’s portrait is in the House Armed Services Committee room; Reid’s is part of the Capitol’s collection and “is displayed somewhere in the building,” Glakas said.
“Public/taxpayer funds were NOT used for any part of those,” he stressed in an e-mail to RealClearInvestigations.
Glakas feels such portraits can play an important civic role. “Perhaps in some small way, when an official starts thinking about their portrait hanging up there with Washington and Jefferson, they might take the long view of the decisions they’re making and the votes they’re casting,” he said. “And we taxpayers might look at those portraits and say, ‘We need a statesman/stateswoman who’s not afraid to make the difficult decisions, regardless of petty nonsense. How does my guy stack up to that?’ ”
Cassidy is concerned less with potential civic inspiration than unnecessary spending of whatever amount. He expects enough bipartisan support to pass his bill by unanimous Senate consent.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a co-sponsor of the EGO Act, agrees the money it is not merely a drop in the bucket to constituents. “I’d encourage anyone who’s commissioned a portrait using Missourians’ hard-earned tax dollars to come back to my state with me and ask folks how they feel about it – they’ll get an earful,” McCaskill wrote in a statement. “This bill just says you should pay for your own portraits and not ask taxpayers to foot the bill.”