US politicians are notoriously stingy about arts funding, but it turns out they’ve been dropping tens of thousands of dollars on commissioned portraits of themselves for decades! Why are we not surprised?
Katherine Boyle at the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog has the story, explaining that members of Congress and heads of offices in the legislative branch and executive agencies have long had the right to commission oil paintings of themselves. And they do, with the results typically costing between $20,000 and $50,000 of government money. (The above portrait of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld cost $46,790, according to a 2008 Post article.) “Reports from the Washington Times and ABC News indicated that the Obama administration had spent nearly $400,000 on portraits of agency directors and Cabinet secretaries since 2010,” Boyle writes. The latter piece, from ABC, boasts a wonderfully Fox News–like headline: “Taxpayer Dollars Spent on Official Government Portraits.”
Somehow we missed hearing about this sooner, as did House Republican Bill Cassidy. But now that he knows, he’s determined to do something about it. Cassidy has proposed H.R.1594, the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act, or … wait for it … the EGO Act. Amazing. It’s cosponsored by 12 Republicans.
Boyle lists some of the issues with the portrait commissions, including the fact that federally funded museums (including, you know, the National Portrait Gallery) can’t use federal money for acquisitions, which means if they want to buy any of the commissioned works, they have to use private money. Which seems a little ridiculous. She also points out that there’s no proper process for choosing the artists.
Maybe therein lies the solution: let the portrait commissions continue, but appoint a body of contemporary art experts to choose the artists who make them. We realize this would never happen, but the possibilities are enticingly endless! Glenn Ligon, John Baldessari, Nicole Eisenman … Then the government would still be supporting artists, but also getting some more interesting art.