There are two kinds of art that hang in the White House. The first are those pieces selected by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, an advisory group constituted of citizens (who serve at the pleasure of the President) with expertise in architecture, design and decorative arts and which replaced the temporary committee formed by Jackie Kennedy (and called the White House Furnishings Committee). According to Art Info, the second are those pieces selected by the First Family to hang within the residence (although I note the wikipedia entry linked above makes no such distinction, and specifically states that the CPWH (or whatever) makes decisions about what hangs in the “historic guest rooms” of the residence).
The new first family must now decide what pieces hang during their residency, and Ruthie Ackerman at Art Info (linked above) has asked 21 artists, dealers, curators and bloggers to recommend pieces to the family. Included in the various lists are major works by African-American artists (Glenn Ligon; Jacob Lawrence; Sam Gilliam; Kara Walker), women (Barbara Kruger; Elizabeth Murray; Kiki Smith; Jenny Holtzer; Dorothea Lange), and pieces that reflect “what it means to be American…and green” (Jasper Johns’ green American flag); “what America is” (Andres Serrano suggesting his own work); biting political satire (Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung); bundles of clothes being sent to Africa, aid from the First World to the Third World (Shinique Smith); Waterboarding (Stephen J. Shanabrook); the Iraq war (Andrei Molodkin); the crisis in health care (Justine Cooper); and several suggestions that relate to weak or devastated national economies.
This decision will be made with great seriousness, in part for the reasons stated in the introductory paragraph of the Art Info interviews:
What pieces Barack and Michelle decide on has wide-ranging implications about what art and artists should be on the public’s radar, and could affect what those artists’ work is worth.
What is left out of this is a second value (implicit in many of the experts’ suggestions to the Obamas): the value of our values. Putting up work from African-American artists, maybe especially women, could promote the (economic) value of particular (social) values (read inclusivity, diversity, historical revisionism, tokenism, Affirmative Action).
This is not a new question in the arts. The relative small number of women represented in the shown portion of the MOMA permenant collection (4%) recently sparked a little conversation. In the 1960s, the U.S. saw a surge of activism around the unequal representation of black artists within museum collections and other institutions charged with preserving and celebrating artistic heritage–taking its most institutional form in the Black Arts Movement (full disclosure: my uncle Benny Andrews played a role in protests and activism around this issue, starting in the 1960s, and continuing until his death in November, 2006).
While I would join those who encourage the First Family to prioritize the selection of women and non-white artists while making their decision (and in no way will this lessen the quality of works from which they choose), the legacy of the Black Arts movement should be the creation and support of existing institutions that train, support and display the great body of works by artists with these characteristics. I don’t see that the inclusion of works by Jenny Holtzer or Jacob Lawrence–already celebrated and often treated as “exceptions”–motivates this agenda as powerfully as works from lesser known artists of equally great talent.