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Art Prevailing Over Politics


With a federal government shutdown in effect, and the staff of the National Gallery of Art locked out of their offices until further notice, it's looking a lot like 1995. The intricacies of the budget arguments are not germane here, but out of that first stalemate came something surprisingly beautiful, almost miraculous.

At first, the picture looked bleak when the first major U.S. exhibition of the paintings of the Baroque Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer coincided almost exactly with the 1995 financial crisis. Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, which had never been out of Holland, were two of the unprecedented 21 of Vermeer's 35 known paintings in the show. They joined our national treasures, the Woman with a Balance and Girl with a Red Hat (both pictured) for a luminous display, the likes of which had never been seen in one place. (Even as fine an encyclopedic collection as the Art Institute's contains no Vermeer paintings.)


National Gallery of Art curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. had worked eight years to secure loans and complete research for the exhibition, but it closed on November 13 in the government deadlock—just two days after it opened. The National Gallery stayed dark for only a week on that occasion, but even after drawing such phenomenal crowds that weekend viewing hours were extended to 7:00p.m. and then 9:00pm, the Vermeer exhibition was shuttered again on December 15. The federal budget talks had failed once more, leading to a shutdown with no end in sight. There was no possibility of an extension, as this once-in-a-lifetime show was scheduled to go directly on to Holland to its second venue, the Mauritshuis in The Hague. By then, with blizzards further complicating the issue, the exhibition had already been closed for nineteen days of its precious three-month run. Something had to give.

Private funds were eventually found to reopen the exhibition (the rest of the museum was closed) for the ten days of the remaining federal furlough, and the crowds kept coming. Tickets were free, but all the advance passes were long gone by the time the show reopened, and despite the winter conditions, daily ticket lines increased. As a high school student in D.C. at the time, I couldn't wait in the morning lines, and might not have seen the show at all, if not for a stroke of luck and some slight subterfuge. My mother and I came to see if we could get in, just at the time someone had left an extra ticket at the visitor desk. She folded it in half in her hand in an attempt to make it look like a pair. By the time the guard stopped me to ask for my ticket, she was already in the exhibition. “My mother has it,” I replied, went in, took the single ticket, and gave it to the guard. Then I disappeared into the luminous prospect that was, against all odds, Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery.

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Johannes Vermeer, Dutch, 1632 – 1675.  Girl with the Red Hat, c. 1665/1666, oil on panel.  Andrew W. Mellon Collection,1937.1.53

Johannes Vermeer, Dutch, 1632 – 1675. Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas. Widener Collection, 1942.9.97