Obama portraits coming to Atlanta’s High Museum

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is sending two of its star attractions on the road.

Beginning in the summer of 2021 the portraits of 44th U.S. President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama will be traveling to five museums -- in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston -- where they will be exhibited for about two months in each locale.

The tour will bring the paintings to the High Museum of Art Jan. 14, 2022. They’ll be on view through March 13, 2022.

Rand Suffolk, director of the High, is deeply enthused about the arrival of the life-sized portraits.

“We try to do things that will resonate with our audience,” said Suffolk, “and it’s been remarkable, somewhat of a phenomenon, the way these two portraits have resonated with audiences since they were unveiled. They continue to captivate hundreds of thousands of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery every year.”

Amy Sherald's six-foot-tall painting of Michelle Obama envisions the former first lady in a flowing colorful dress reminiscent of the quilts of Gee's Bend. Barack Obama is portrayed by Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley against a backdrop of jasmine, chrysanthemums and African blue lilies. His portrait is seven feet tall.

Both portraits are unconventional, and break with tradition in their settings and their use of color. The monumental paintings have drawn monumental crowds.

Visitation to the National Portrait Gallery almost doubled after the arrival of the paintings in 2018, going from 1.2 million a year to 2.3 million a year.



Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said at least 4 million people have seen the Obama portraits. “We know for a fact that people plan their trips to Washington, D.C. to come and see them,” she said.

For that reason Sajet is reluctant to let them go for more than a year. She  doesn’t want to disappoint their visitors, who might stop in and find the Obama portraits missing.

She added that her museum also has a self-interested motive for keeping the tour short.

“We didn’t want to live without them for too long,” she said.

The High Museum has ties to both artists. It owns a Wiley painting and has hosted Sherald for lectures about the portrait.

Shortly before the paintings were unveiled in February, 2018, the High announced that Sherald, a native of Columbus, would be the winner of the David C. Driskell Prize, an award founded by the High in 2005 as the "first national award to celebrate an early- or mid-career scholar or artist whose work makes an original and important contribution to the field of African-American art or art history."

The $25,000 award is supported by the David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Fund, which has helped the High acquire dozens of works of art by African Americans, though none by Sherald.

Credit: Andrew Harnik

Credit: Andrew Harnik

The High’s connection to Wiley and Sherald, its geographical location and its friends at the Smithsonian, of which it is a partner, helped the museum secure a chance to display the paintings.

Said Sajet, “we have a lot of friends in your city, and we love you guys.”

Credit: Andrew Harnik

Credit: Andrew Harnik

Last year Sherald exhibited nine of her portraits at Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts and presented lectures at Spelman and at the High Museum.

The National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institute, has an inventory of 23,000 portraits. Among those are 1,600 portraits of presidents, such as the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.

The gallery began collecting portraits in 1968, and began officially commissioning presidential portraits in 1994, starting with President George W. Bush.

Both the White House and the National Gallery commission such paintings, and both have complete collections of presidential portraits.