By Alfonso Fernandez
Washington, Mar 17 (efe-epa).- Eight decades ago, while World War II was ravaging Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the dedication speech for the National Gallery of Art, which he called a “gift to the nation” that would enable the public permanently to view in Washington master works of art.
Among the artists whose works would be displayed at the museum at that time were – and are – Rafael, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Botticelli and the only piece by Leonardo da Vinci then in the US.
All this was thanks to the donation by former Treasury Secretary (from 1921-1932) Andrew Mellon, one of the richest Americans, whose fortune encompassed banks, oil companies and aluminum companies and who died in 1937, just a few years before he would have fulfilled his dream to see a National Gallery of Art established in this country.
“The dedication of this Gallery to a living past, and to a greater and more richly living future, is the measure of the earnestness of our intention: that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on,” Roosevelt said at the museum dedication ceremony on March 17, 1941.
Regarding Mellon, the president remarked that he had combined his sizable donation with the modesty of his spirit, stipulating that the gallery should not bear his name but rather that of the nation.
One day later, on March 18, 1941, the museum opened its doors to the public.
There have only been two periods during which the museum’s daily operations have been adjusted. In 1942, it was partially closed and a portion of its most valuable works were transferred to North Carolina for their protection during the war, and in 2020 and so far in 2021 it has been closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Since its founding, the museum has become the second-most-visited institution of its kind in the US, surpassed only by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Eighty years is big, but it’s not the Prado or other European institutions. I think that the milestone is about public service,” said museum director Kaywin Feldman in a chat with EFE.
“I think it’s striking that when we opened in 1941 …within a few months we had a million visitors and we had very few works of art. Our founding collection was about 150 objects, and … so here we are, all of these years later, and we get, usually on average, … four or five million visitors a year,” she added.
At present, the collection, she said, stands at more than 150,000 works.
Feldman went on to say that the big challenge now is for the institution to adapt to the changing social and cultural reality in the US.
She said that the question now is to find out what it means to belong to the nation and to all Americans at a time when the US is transforming itself in a significant way with 40 percent of the population being people of color: African Americans, Latinos and Asians.
Feldman said that the museum was founded as a European institution and despite the fact that it has a collection of US art, the heart of the institution is Europe and the museum is proud of that. Nevertheless, she added, the museum wants to embrace the broadest possible spectrum of what the US is today.
Unfortunately, the museum will not be able to fully celebrate its 80th anniversary because of the pandemic.
Last July, it reopened its doors but had to close down again on Nov. 21 because of the renewed surge in Covid infections in the Washington metro area.
Feldman emphasized that the gallery has markedly developed its strengths in digital production to be able to bring the museum into people’s homes, but she acknowledged that it’s not the “same experience” as one has standing in front of a Caravaggio or a Cezanne and contemplating it.
She said that currently the museum’s sculpture garden is open and the institution hopes to be able to fully reopen within the next two months.