The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has released attendance figures for 2018 which shows that 2.3 million people visited the Washington, D.C museum, an increase of 1 million from the previous year.
The rise in visitors is thought to be due to the installation of the portraits of the former US president and former first lady painted for the first time by two African American artists. Kehinde Wiley painted Barack Obama seated on a wooden chair, surrounded by greenery and flowers while Amy Sherald’s grey-scale depiction of Michelle Obama shows the former first lady wearing a floor-length dress. When unveiled in Februrary 2018, the paintings were seen as a departure from traditional official state portraiture.
‘It’s the only reason I’m here’, one gallery visitor told the Washington Post, ‘He was the first president I ever cared about.’ Another visitor commented: ‘I thought this is the closest that I’ll probably ever get to [Obama], and of what he represented – hope and love and progress’.
According to a volunteer member of staff at the museum, vistors now frequently ask ‘Where are the Obamas?’ The director of the gallery Kim Saject has referred to this as the ‘Obama effect’, writing: ‘Viewing these paintings was turning into a form of secular pilgrimage, and the museum was becoming even more popular as a communal gathering place.’
Commenting on Wiley and Sherald’s different visualizations of the black body, Ian Bourland wrote in 2017: ‘If Wiley’s is a blend of baroque lighting and bling excess – what historian Krista Thompson has called the ‘shine’ at work in black visual culture – Sherald’s palette is muted, restrained, but somehow more vivid in spite (or because) of its economy of means.’