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The art of saving: Bill would cut funds for official portraits

Washington is full of official portraits, but some budget-minded lawmakers want to stop billing taxpayers for them.

September 07, 2013|By Richard Simon
  • Artist Jon Friedman's portrait of former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was paid for through private donations, a method Frank thinks government officials should use instead of tax dollars.
Artist Jon Friedman's portrait of former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.)… (Collection of the U.S. House…)

The capital is full of portraits of government officials, sometimes more than one of the same person.

Elliot Richardson has four — one for each department he headed in the 1970s, including the Defense Department, where he was secretary for just four months. Donald H. Rumsfeld has two on display at the Pentagon, one for each of his stints as Defense secretary.

Scores of others — Cabinet members, congressional leaders, heads of agencies such as NASA and the National Science Foundation and military leaders — are immortalized in oil paintings, an enduring tradition that has become part of the nation's historical record.

But in budget-conscious Congress, an effort is underway to put an end to the practice of taxpayers footing the bill for the commissioned paintings. The measure is dubbed the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting, or EGO, Act.

Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced it after reports that the Environmental Protection Agency spent $38,350 for former administrator Lisa P. Jackson's portrait.

"Lisa Jackson can borrow my camera for free," he suggested as an alternative.

"At a time of trillion-dollar deficits, it is not appropriate to spend thousands of dollars on official paintings," Cassidy wrote to the House Appropriations Committee, which has included a prohibition on taxpayer-funded portraits in a spending bill awaiting a House vote.

"If agency administrators, Cabinet secretaries or members of Congress feel it necessary to commission portraits, they should be responsible for paying for them."

Deficit-minded lawmakers have sought to crack down on other Washington traditions, including pushing the No Monuments to Me Act to block federal funding for projects named after sitting lawmakers.

Portrait prices vary. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's cost $22,500. Former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's cost $19,500, and one of his predecessor, Carlos Gutierrez, cost $40,000. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's portrait cost $52,450.

On Capitol Hill, portraits of former House committee chairmen, including a number of Californians, adorn committee rooms, but they are funded by private contributions. The late House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame) is portrayed with his poodle.

Portraits of former House speakers and Senate leaders, on the other hand, are funded by taxpayers. The depiction of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) cost $51,000.

President Carter once directed Cabinet members to substitute cheaper color photos for oil paintings.

Richardson, whose portrait as Commerce secretary under President Ford had yet to be commissioned, responded by painting his own. The advantage of a self-portrait, he said at the time, "is that you can make yourself look younger and handsomer and give yourself more hair."

"I paid for mine," said Joseph A. Califano, secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under Carter, who added in an interview that he agrees that taxpayers should not pay for official portraits.

Friends of W. Michael Blumenthal, a Treasury secretary under Carter, raised funds for his portrait "believing that the consistency of the existing collection of painted Treasury secretary portraits would be compromised by a photograph," according to the Treasury Department.

The thought of substituting photos for oil paintings is making painters bristle.

Michele Rushworth, a Washington state artist, sees historic and artistic value to the works.

"Any photo can tell us what someone looked like, but portrait paintings aim for something deeper — something of the essence and character of the individual, designed to be appreciated for generations to come," she said. "Portraiture is a minuscule part of the federal budget and, I believe, provides the American people with a valuable part of our historical and cultural legacy."

Edward Jonas, chairman of the Portrait Society of America, said, "Being able to look back into the faces of those that have built our country to see their courage, determination, and feel their humanity is priceless. Should we label it as an expense or an investment?"

The funding ban would have no effect on the White House portraits of presidents; they have been privately funded for decades.

The portraits often line corridors of federal buildings. One that stands out is a modern abstract-style painting of former Atty. Gen. Nicholas Katzenbach that adorns the Justice Department along with the more traditional portraits of former attorneys general.

Twenty-two portraits of past Defense secretaries are on display at the Pentagon in the Secretary of Defense Corridor, most commissioned at public expense, a Pentagon spokesman said.

"These portraits are viewed by thousands of visitors and employees who visit the Pentagon, and convey the history of the department's leadership and defense mission," the spokesman said, noting that the tradition dates to the 1870s.

The House of Representatives has 286 portraits in its collection, including portraits of former Ways and Means Committee Chairmen Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), remembered for his escapades with stripper Fanne Foxe, and Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), who served 15 months in prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud.

Some former chairmen have made it an art to include in their portraits objects reflective of their personality or their records.

Former House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) noted that his image is "rife with symbolism," including a copy of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law he co-wrote, harpooner bookends reflecting New Bedford, a former whaling town in his district, and a rainbow flag. Frank is openly gay.

"I can't see why Cabinet officials can't do what I did," Frank said in an interview, suggesting that they could use private donations to fund their portraits.

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