The Obamas will be leaving Washington next year for a five-city tour.
Their portraits, that is. The paintings of former President Barack Obama — by Kehinde Wiley — and first lady Michelle Obama — by Amy Sherald — have attracted record crowds to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Starting in June 2021, the portraits will travel to five cities, giving new audiences a chance to experience them.
“We’re a history museum and an art museum, and they are really great representations of both. This tour is an opportunity for audiences in different parts of the country to witness how portraiture can engage people,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, the museum that commissioned the works. “You can use these portraits as a portal to all sorts of conversations.”
The tour will begin at the Art Institute of Chicago (June 18-Aug. 15, 2021) before moving to the Brooklyn Museum (Aug. 27-Oct. 24, 2021), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Nov. 5-Jan. 2, 2022), the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (Jan. 14-March 13, 2022) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (March 25-May 30, 2022).
The cities were selected by the gallery for personal and geographical reasons. The Obamas have deep connections to Chicago, for example, and the works will be there when the former president celebrates his 60th birthday. Sherald grew up in Georgia, and Wiley was born in Los Angeles, so those stops made sense, Sajet said. Wiley’s studio is based in Brooklyn, and its museum has several of his works in its collection.
Thursday’s tour announcement coincides with the publication of “The Obama Portraits,” an illustrated book from the Smithsonian Institution and the Princeton University Press that celebrates the portraits and their influence. Wiley and Sherald are the first African American artists to be selected for the gallery’s portraits of a president or first lady, and their paintings have drawn millions to the gallery since their splashy unveiling in February 2018.
The NPG decided it was time to share them with the country, Sajet said, because Washington is too far for many Americans to make what she described as a “secular pilgrimage” to see them.
“We hand-picked (the museums),” she said. “They were the easiest calls I’ve made in my life.”
No conditions are being placed on their display, Sajet added, and she predicted that each exhibit will differ. James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, said the portraits will be displayed in a way that spotlights that museum’s holdings.
“We are an institution that contains a history of portraits, from the Bronze Age to the present, of kings and queens, popes and rulers, but also everyday people,” he said. “We will embed (the Obama portraits) within the DNA of the institution.”
Rondeau described the exhibit coming in summer 2021 as historic and expressed gratitude to the Portrait Gallery for the privilege of the first stop outside Washington.
“The Obamas have a very special relationship to Chicago and our museum in particular,” he said.
The pairing of artists and sitters is extraordinary, he added. The Obamas’ “authority, charisma, humanity, charm, accessibility, it seems to be resting inside these paintings. It’s a perfect storm. Talent and magic and subject come together to have this almost electrifying effect.”
The NPG has a history of touring its temporary exhibits, but loans of the popular presidential portraits are more unusual. “Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century” went on tour between 1998 and 2000. A larger show — “Portraits of the Presidents From the National Portrait Gallery” — toured the nation from 2000-2005, when the museum was closed for a renovation. Likewise, the treasured Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington, known as the “Lansdowne” portrait, visited seven venues between 2002-04, also during the renovation.
The National Portrait Gallery is a branch of the Smithsonian and doesn’t charge admission. Sajet said the five museums on the tour have been asked to provide some free access, even if that means only “a number of free days” during each stop, she said.
Rondeau said his museum is planning to “radically expand free hours for Chicagoans. We want to make sure everyone who wants to see these iconic portraits will be able to. I very much hope and expect we will be in the happy business of managing long lines.”
Another painting of Obama will anchor the popular “America’s Presidents” exhibition at the Portrait Gallery while the Wiley portrait is on tour. Still, Sajet said, visitors will miss the Wiley and Sherald paintings.
“We know people book their trips to Washington, and one of the stops now is to come and see the portraits,” she said.
But, Sajet promised, “there will be a big party when they get back.”