Ever since Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled in February, attendance numbers at Washington DC’s National Portrait Gallery have exploded. So much so that Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama was recently moved to a different part of the museum ahead of schedule in order to accommodate the crowds.
In a phone interview with Hyperallergic, National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet was hesitant to compare the number of people who came to see each of the new portraits, but she did say that Michelle Obama’s is the most popular portrait of a first lady. Sajet attributed this popularity to “the magic of Michelle’s presence: her statuesque pose, flowing dress, and direct gaze” in Sherald’s portrait. The viral photo of two-year-old Parker Curry standing in awe in front of it hasn’t hurt either.
Sajet said that visitors can walk by and look at the portraits whenever they please, but there’s a line for taking photos, and at times, people have waited over an hour in the queue to take a photo with the former first lady’s portrait. “It’s like taking a souvenir,” Sajet said. “While in line, people are chatting with each other, and we’ve noticed how well-natured everyone is about it, even celebrities. Stephen Colbert came and just lined up with everybody else and didn’t make a fuss. It’s a great equalizer.”
As for numbers, Sajet said attendance is breaking records. In February of this year, 176,700 visited the museum, which is more than any single month in the past three years. On March 24 alone, the day of the March For Our Lives, 35,968 people visited the museum. That same day, Sajet said there were so many people in the Presidential portrait gallery that the museum had to close off the space for a while and wait for people to peter out before letting others in.
In terms of demographics of visitors, Sajet has noticed a larger generational diversity, with lots of families coming in together. She said she’s been talking to visitors and when she comes across local DC residents, she asks them why they don’t just wait until later in the year, when the museum will presumably be less crowded. “The local people say they want to be here,” Sajet said. “They want to be a part of the buzz.”
Meanwhile at the museum store, sales have increased more than 200% and it’s hard to keep the Obama merchandise in stock. “The first shipment arrived on a Friday and was already sold out that Sunday,” Sajet said.
“The portraits are part of the permanent collection and aren’t going anywhere,” Sajet said. “So we are asking ourselves, what’s the new normal? Will the museum start to see a permanent increase in attendance? We’re heading into cherry blossom season now, so it will be really fascinating to see what happens.”