Pic­ture this: Cab­i­net por­traits for big bucks

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JIM MCELHATTON

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

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