The Evolution of the White House Art Collection

The White House not only houses this nations leader, it’s also home to one of this country’s greatest art collections. The White House’s collection contains about 65,000 objects, which includes utensils, glassware, and around five-hundred paintings. Once a new president moves into office the White House curator’s office chooses new works for display in the public spaces and the west wing. The President and First Lady can select works from the current collection and take works on loan from different museums. The first family sends someone they trust to various museums so they can choose work for the private living quarters.

The Green Room & former White House Chief Curator; William G. Allman

The manner in which art is obtained by the White House was set in place by First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961. Once John was admitted into office (January 20th, 1961) and the White House became their home, Jackie took it upon herself to liven up, what she felt were uninspired rooms. Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were both well-versed in art history and established collectors before they entered the White House.

John & Jacqueline Kennedy, Massachusetts, 1950’s

During her first year in the White House Mrs. Kennedy spent her time searching for artefacts, artworks, and antiques that accurately represented her profound admiration for American history and culture. Therefore, she managed a massive restoration project, which became such an undertaking that the First Lady developed the Fine Arts Committee for the White House in 1961. This committee combined American historical decoration experts and preservation specialists, who supervised the development of the collection. Mrs. Kennedy and the Fine Arts Committee realized they were also in need of someone to organize and keep track of the growing collection, therefore the position of White House Curator was created. Lorraine Waxman Pearce was the first curator for the White House.

Jacqueline Kennedy (left) & the first White House Curator Lorraine Waxman Pearce (right)

Shortly after Lorraine was named White House curator in March 1961, that September, Congress pronounced the White House a museum under Public Law 87-286; which recognized Mrs. Kennedy’s project as historic preservation. The law secured items gifted by donors, those items were not to be kept personally by a president. This led to the founding of the White House Historical Association on November 3rd, 1961.

“Articles of furniture, fixtures, and decorative objects…when declared by the President to be of historic or artistic interest…shall thereafter be considered to be inalienable and the property of the White House.”

Public Law 87-286
Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House Tour with CBS on February 14th, 1962 (short clip)

Even today, anything acquired for a President stays in the White House, is returned to a museum collection, or remains on loan at the Smithsonian. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy developed an astounding cultural significance within the White House, a significance that many First Families have successfully maintained.

After the Kennedy Project: Artworks Obtained for the White House

After the Kennedy’s left their mark, Presidents and their families made an effort to follow in their footsteps. Presidents have combined their life of politics with their appreciation for art, which has now marked the White House as not only a symbol of power, but also one of culture and sophistication. For the remainder of this blog I am going to provide a brief overview of a few works acquired by First Families.

1965

Jackson Pollock’s Cathedral (1947) for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House Festival of the Arts Foundation. | from: the Dallas Museum of Art

1969

Frederic Remington’s Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill (1898) requested by President Richard Nixon for the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing | from: the Frederic Remington Art Museum

1993

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Bear Lake, New Mexico (1930) requested by First Lady Hillary Clinton for the Green Room (this painting now hangs in the White House Library). | from: an unknown New York Gallery

1994-1996

Scott Burton’s Granite Settee (1982-83) requested by President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton for an exhibition “Twentieth Century American Sculpture at the White House” held in the First Lady’s Garden (remained on view 1994-96). | from: the Dallas Museum of Art

George Segal’s Walking Man (1988) requested by the Clinton’s for the exhibition “Twentieth Century American Sculpture at the White House” held in the First Lady’s Garden (remained on view 1994-96). | from: the Walker Art Center

1996-2010

Frederic Remington’s The Outlier (1909) loaned to the White House by the Brooklyn Museum between the years of 1996-2010. | hung in the West Wing Reception Room.

John Frederick Peto’s Door with Lanterns (late 1880s) loaned to the White House by the Brooklyn Museum between the years of 1996-2010. | hung in the West Wing Reception Room.

2009

Thomas Hill’s View of the Yosemite Valley (1865) hung above the head table at President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Luncheon | from: the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library

** the above acquisition information is accredited to Artnet News **

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