WASHINGTON – The Rachel Whiteread sculpture show at the National Gallery of Art ended its four-month run this weekend, but because of the partial government shutdown, no one had been able to see the major survey since Jan. 2.
Now, the acclaimed show must be taken down, packed and shipped to the St. Louis Art Museum, where it is scheduled to open in March. But the employees responsible for this routine, yet painstaking work have been furloughed. There’s only a skeleton crew working without pay to ensure the exhibition makes the final stop on its international tour, said a gallery spokeswoman.
The Whiteread show is the first in a series of closings of high-profile Washington, D.C., exhibitions affected by the government shutdown, now in its fourth week and no end in sight. “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” closing at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery on Jan. 21 after being shut to visitors since Jan. 1, also requires a team of specialized workers to move the valuable works.
In normal times, such moves would occur without a hitch. But these are not normal times for the federal cultural institutions caught in the political impasse. While about a quarter of the federal government shut down Dec. 22, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian museums stayed open through December, using reserve funds to keep operating during the busy holiday season.
As the shutdown rolls toward its second month, long-planned exhibition deadlines are being affected, both for shows closing and those being moved elsewhere, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. Furloughed workers have been allowed to work only because the shows must be taken down.
“They have to get ready for new things coming in,” St. Thomas said. “They want to be ready for action as soon as the shutdown ends.”
An exhibition of modern Japanese photography is set to close Jan. 24 at the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler galleries; a show of Diane Arbus photographs ends Jan. 27 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and two exhibitions are nearing their end at the Hirshhorn Museum: “Charline von Heyl: Snake Eyes” (Jan. 27) and “Sean Scully: Landline” (Feb. 3).
Other activities at the museums have also been hampered. The National Museum of African Art agreed to lend 23 works to the Block Museum at Northwestern University for a groundbreaking show about medieval Africa. The touring exhibition will debut next week.
The government shutdown meant that those pieces didn’t arrive as expected last week, said curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, who has spent seven years on the show, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa,” which will be on view in Washington next year.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Berzock said. “We have a huge amount of sympathy for our colleagues at the African Art Museum. We’re appreciative of everything they’ve done.”
The Smithsonian ended up bringing in furloughed workers to take care of the loans, and the works are now expected to arrive before the show opens. But the delay has increased the Block’s costs and caused its staff to scramble to complete the installation.
The shutdown also is having financial repercussions at the Smithsonian, which lost about $1.5 million in revenue during the first 10 days of the closure, a spokeswoman said. If the closures continue, it expects to lose $920,000 a week through January, from food and beverage sales, Imax theater admission and parking fees.