ArtsOn Exhibit

Free for All: A Day at the Museums

Venturing into D.C. like a tourist these days is quite enjoyable. Read about Kelly MacConomy's experience visiting newly reopened museums!

Even though the beloved mammoth mobile has been removed from the atrium during roof renovations, there’s a panoply of his works in all shapes and sizes and media in the Calder Room of Tower 2. (Kelly MacConomy)

Alexandria, VA – It’s been a long summer. Not as long as last year’s, but just as things seem to be getting better, they also seem to get worse. Two steps forward, one step back? Very recently, I took a day to visit several museums in the District to report my experiences to Zebra readers.

Venturing into D.C. like a tourist these days is quite enjoyable. There’s newfound luxury in light traffic, ample parking, no lines, maskless faces, and indoor dining. But for some reason, when rolling out museum openings last month after reopening the National Zoo in May, the Smithsonian found a way to make tourism in the time of COVID déjà-vu challenging all over again.

Sadly, you can likely forget about a zoo visit for now, even as Xiao Qi Ji is at that adorable panda toddler age. Even if you score a rare zoo entry pass, you are expressly not guaranteed a panda pass. I’ve been there twice, once when they first opened and again early last month. I had an easier time scoring Hamilton and Springsteen tickets than a panda pass.

Zoo staff have been wonderful during each visit. Turning away families without passes at the entrance isn’t easy. Explaining to those who gained entry that they still can’t see the pandas requires diplomatic finesse. Admittedly, minimizing the crowds provides a zoo experience reserved for the president and lesser VIPs. Given the well-managed crowd-control protocols, the entire visit proved to be serenity and how. Walking the zoo trails unencumbered felt at once somewhat decadent and entirely euphoric.

The National Gallery of Art East Wing reopened along with the West Building this summer. At the time, passes were required but readily available to accommodate even an impromptu last-minute visit. Now you enter the East Wing not through the center main doors but via the right side of the museum’s front, where the marble wall diminishes to a vanishing point so improbably thin that before restoration, the light gray stone had turned dark from fingers stroking the wall in disbelief.

Once past the graciously welcoming staff gauntlet where they check your passes, you proceed through the mags – no more bag searches – past the library and staff office access into the atrium. Without the hanging Calder mobile.

They are renovating the roof and the iconic Calder photo opp piece was relocated for safekeeping. An East Wing of the National Gallery of Art without Calder is like the Mall without the Washington Monument. Okay, perhaps it’s not that grim. But it is disarming.

On a 95-degree day, people with timed passes to enter the National Museum of African American History and Culture sought shade and maintained social distance while waiting to visit one of the most popular museums on the Mall. (Kelly MacConomy)

The Ellsworth Kelly colored panels are gone as well. Instead, guests are greeted by Kay Rosen’s “SORRY (2020-2021),” one of three site-responsive installations commissioned to spruce up the East Wing during the latest renovations. Thankfully Andy Goldsmith’s Virginia slate installation “Roof, 2004-2005” remains, if only for practicality.

Moving forward, I was lucky to reserve a late-morning ticket to the reopening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Arriving in D.C. early, I hoped to manage a quick visit to the Renwick beforehand, on the off chance that they would take walk-ins or there would be a pass cancellation. No such luck. So I nursed a cappuccino at a Starbucks by the White House before hiking down to the newest museum on the Mall.

The Contemplation Court rainfall room of the National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a respite from the emotional journey taken three floors below. Each of the four walls is inscribed with quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Sam Cooke, and abolitionist/suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. (Kelly MacConomy)

From the day it opened in September 2016 and for most years thereafter, the NMAAHC required timed passes to enter. But before the pandemic, weekday visits did not require reservations, only weekends and holidays. I arrived promptly for my 11:30 am time slot to find a lingering line down the west side of the building.

The queue out front has long been formidable as staff scanned ticket codes followed by airport-level security screening inside. This day there was a bit of chaos as inexperienced staff held 11:30 ticket holders back while waiting for tardy 11:00 visitors who were scattered throughout the line that snaked back to Constitution Avenue.

The result was a 40-minute delay in gaining admittance. Once inside, visitors were directed to go up for African American culture exhibits and down for a journey through history from enslavement to the First African American president. Having been fortunate to spend countless hours here (sometimes confused as a tour guide), I knew to head directly downstairs for the incomparable history exhibits where there’s always a significant wait to enter.

This time only ten people were in the queue. Oh, happy day! And yet, there was still a wait. Instead of taking a single large group down the spacious elevator, we were divided into two lines, one for those with strollers or ambulatory challenges to use the elevator; the other to use the stairs. Social bubbles were kept 12 feet apart, with only one bubble at a time permitted on the stairs.

Once downstairs, everyone moved about freely, self-determining their comfort level of social distancing.

It was wonderful to be back. A few changes had been made. Harriet Tubman’s lace shawl given to her by Queen Victoria had been switched out with her lace-edged handkerchief. The special space that had the Oprah Winfrey exhibit was closed in preparation for a Reconstruction themed one. The gift shop was open and without the usual line to enter. The Sweet Home Café, whose menu developed in consultation with Dr. Jesscia B. Harris is a loving nod toward classic American country cooking, remains closed due to COVID. The cookbook is a treasure.

Visitors are enthralled by the vibrant graphic work of such Chicano artists as Michael Menchaca, who illustrates the plight of the Latin American people in the ongoing struggle for social justice and equality. (Kelly MacConomy)

After lunch at the historic Arts Club of Washington in the President James Monroe House (2017 I St., N.W.), I took in the current art exhibit, which is free of charge and open to the public from 10 am-5 pm (closed in August), and then was off to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery located off the beaten Mall path in the Penn Quarter. Timed passes were required again, but once inside the door, you can access both museums as the enclosed Kogod Courtyard connects them. And the water feature is turned back on too!

Never a dull moment there, with several must-see exhibits. “Welcome Home: A Portrait of East Baltimore, 1975-1980” is an intriguing time capsule spotlighting the gritty realism of an iconic Baltimore neighborhood. You can almost hear the chorus of “Hons” from women leaning out the windows and posed in rowhouse doorways.

Harriet Tubman, oil on paperboard, about 1945, by William H. Johnson on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Juxtaposed with the young epic abolitionist heroine of the Underground
Railroad, Tubman is the elderly suffragist Tubman wearing the lace shawl given to her by Queen Victoria around 1897. (Kelly MacConomy)

If you hurry, you can catch the final days of “Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now,” celebrating the renaissance of Chicano printmaking within the context of social justice unrest. This exhibit will leave on August 8. Also leaving the SAAM that day is the installation of photographs by Dawoud Bey in conversation with a painting by William H. Johnson referencing the Underground Railroad.

It’s a great disappointment that the Galleries for Modern and Contemporary Art on SAAM’s 3rd floor remain closed temporarily. Accidentally accessing the exhibit area, I was shocked to see that the graphics for last year’s Humboldt exhibit (covered by On Exhibit in December 2020) still remained.

Suzanne Eisinger’s Stratum II, acrylic on canvas, on exhibit and open free to the public at the historic Washington Arts Club, won an award for excellence. Ms. Eisinger describes her abstractions as having a deeper meaning that, like poetry, grows in time. (Kelly MacConomy)

Ever a favorite among visitors for its enormous Modern Masters canvases and provocative sculpture, SAAM is mixing it up on the top floor to make way for new artwork and stories to tell. Exciting exhibits coming this fall are Sargent, Whistler, and “Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano,” complemented by “New Glass Now” at the Renwick, and “Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women.” Crayon these onto your calendars. Let’s hope for a brave new art world to come and stay—without timed passes, long lines, and masks.

After my whirlwind day of tightly scheduled art experiences, I learned that the Smithsonian had opened the African Art Museum and the Freer Gallery and abruptly abandoned the timed-pass admission to all sites except for the National Zoo and the NMAAHC. The National Gallery followed suit. In these final days of summer, plan to take advantage of our big backyard of wondrous art and history in neighboring D.C. Free and fun for all.

ICYMI: New Art League Exhibit Highlights Work of Yasmin Bussiere

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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