Need-to- Inform. Beyond the Golden Toilet: How Does Art End Up in the White House.

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Beyond the Golden Toilet: How Does Art End Up in the White House, and What Does It Tell Us About Our Leaders?

White House art loans have been in the pipeline for decades.

It was the loan denial heard around the world. When the White House requested to borrow a painting by Vincent van Gogh from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in September, the museum’s chief curator Nancy Spector kindly declined, but countered with a hum-dinger of a replacement: a golden toilet by Maurizio Cattelan.

After the Washington Post reported the exchange late last month, many applauded her snarkiness, while others—including a Fox Business host who called for the curator’s resignation—viewed it as highly inappropriate.

Party-line divisions aside, the cause célèbre sheds light on a history of lesser-known art loans to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And it illustrates how the Trump Administration appears to be doing things a bit differently than its predecessors.

The History of Art in the White House

A 1961 act of Congress formalised the White House’s art collection, which now contains about 65,000 objects, if one counts things like utensils and glasses individually. The collection also includes around 500 paintings. When a new president arrives, the White House curator’s office selects new works for display in public spaces and the West Wing.

The works can subtly communicate political priorities as well as personal tastes. President Ronald Reagan reportedly installed a portrait of Calvin Coolidge in the cabinet room as a nod to the importance of fiscal conservatism. When she was first lady, Hillary Clinton installed a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe in the Green Room. Michelle Obama acquired a bright abstract painting by Alma Thomas, which became the first work by a female African-American artist to enter the White House collection.

A new first family can also request art to decorate private spaces. Two paintings by Edward Hopper, for example, hung in the Oval Office during Obama’s final term, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

“The Bushes opted for traditional landscapes, various Impressionist works, and historic etchings that were framed,” said Matthew Costello, the senior historian at the White House Historical Association. “The Obamas preferred a much more modern motif in the family quarters, changing the paint color and adding large pieces of modern art throughout the central hall. This also carried over to the family dining room on the state floor, where the Obamas changed the décor to reflect their modern tastes.”

A Nontraditional Approach

So far, the Trump Administration’s requests have not followed traditional protocol. Normally, the president’s office will request a number of loans from the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. But a year into Trump’s tenure, neither institution has received a request for loans to decorate the presidential office or residence, according to spokespeople.

The White House didn’t respond to multiple interview requests, so the question remains why it sought to borrow the Guggenheim’s Van Gogh before issuing requests to museums closer to home, with which the White House has prior loan programs. (The Van Gogh painting, Landscape with Snow (1888), depicts a man in a black hat walking through a field with a dog.)

The National Gallery has lent hundreds of artworks to the White House since 1945, according to a spokeswoman, and loans often extend through multiple administrations. White House curators and decorators typically visit the gallery and share what kinds of work interest their bosses.

Both the president’s and vice president’s offices have visited the National Gallery, so it is possible that loans will be forthcoming. (Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, also visited in person.) The request process is typically complicated and long, said the gallery spokeswoman.

Gallery guidelines prohibit removing objects that are on view or undergoing conservation. Works that are covered by existing loan