Picture this: Cabinet portraits for big bucks
It’s not always easy to tell who’s coming or going as the Obama administration starts its second term, but multiple agencies have quietly commissioned artists to paint official portraits of Cabinet secretaries and other top appointees — an expenditure often seen when officials are on the way out the door or already gone.
The Environmental Protection Agency spent nearly $40,000 on a portrait of Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, while a painting of Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley will cost $41,200, according to federal purchasing records. The price tag for a 3-by-4-foot oil portrait of Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack: $22,500.
All told, the government has paid out at least $180,000 for official portraits since last year, according to a review by The Washington Times of spending records at federal agencies and military offices across government.
Painting people high up in all branches of the federal government is a long-held tradition for Republicans and Democrats alike in Washington. Taxpayers picked up the tab for official portraits of top appointees in the Bush administration, too, including more than $40,000 spent on a painting of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, records show.
A portrait of former EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, another Bush appointee, cost about $30,000, according to EPA records.
Like most other agencies, USDA officials wouldn’t say one way or another whether the $22,500 it’s spending to commission a portrait of Mr. Vilsack signals his intent to leave the Obama administration.
“Consistent with previous administrations, the department has commissioned a portrait to be unveiled at some point following Secretary Vilsack’s tenure,” USDA spokesman Justin DeJong wrote in an email to The Times. “USDA solicited bids for the portrait and selected the lowest of five bids.”
In April, Mr. Vilsack hosted the unveiling of a portrait of former Bush USDA Secretary Ed Schaefer, a painting that cost $30,500, while the portrait of another former Bush USDA chief, Michael Johanns, cost $34,425, records show.
Ann Fader, president of Portrait Consultants in Washington, which represents portrait artists, said that because of policy, she could not discuss any specific government commissions. But she said some agencies start the search for an artist long before secretaries leave because paintings can take from eight to 14 months to complete and frame.
“These are done for future generations to see how we live now, and it’s really a tribute as well as part of a person’s legacy,” she said.
“It’s a tremendous privilege to paint a portrait of somebody as accomplished as these people,” she said, adding that agencies have made a “concerted effort to be cost conscious” over the past few years. Not everyone agrees. David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a watchdog group, questioned whether the government ought to be spending tens of thousands of dollars for oil paintings of Cabinet secretaries often outside the public’s view.
“It’s not like people are going to be lining up for an exhibit, ‘HUD Secretaries Through the Years,’ ” Mr. Williams said. “And just because it’s a Washington tradition doesn’t mean they have to keep doing it.”
Indeed, the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently hired an artist for $19,500 to paint Steve Preston, who served as HUD secretary for seven months in the waning days of the Bush administration after the resignation of Alphonso Jackson.
Once i t ’s f inished and framed, the Preston portrait will hang with paintings of all of the other past HUD secretaries in a 10th-floor hallway of the department’s headquarters building in Washington.
Asked whether tourists could view the portraits, HUD spokesman Jerry Brown said the department hasn’t had any requests to do so, but he noted that it was a public building.
But when The Times later called to ask to send a photographer, Mr. Brown declined, pointing out that the paintings are in a secure section of the building where people work.
HUD, EPA and USDA are hardly alone. The Commerce Department is spending $22,500 for a secretary’s portrait, while the Interior Department will pay $24,900, records show.
Steve Ellis, spokesman for the D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, said official portraits of presidents make sense, “but the further you move down the food chain, it’s less understandable.”
“It’s preposterous to think that these are all in the public domain for the art-enjoying public to review the merits of portraiture,” he said. “It’s about stroking egos.”
Would you pay for this man’s picture? Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack