Arts Desk

Shutdown Corner: The Museums That Might Be Closed in 31 Hours

You won't be able to see this Gabriel Metsu painting if the government shuts down.

As federal budget negotiations barrel toward the deadline at 12 a.m. Saturday, government-funded cultural institutions—like all federal agencies—are calculating which employees are "essential" and would continue working during a shutdown, and which would be furloughed and kept home without pay while the White House and Congress chip away at a resolution to fund the government through the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. Arts Desk will be covering the impact of a shutdown on the Washington arts scene.

National Gallery of Art: The National Gallery of Art is still determining how many of its 860 employees would report for duty under shutdown conditions, says Deborah Ziska, the gallery's public information chief. The gallery has so far evaded Congressional appropriators' paring knives through a series of continuing resolutions, but the real impact of a shutdown might be better observed through its visiting exhibits.

Ziska, who has worked for the NGA for 23 years, recalls the shuttering of a rare collection of 21 works by the 17th-century painter Johannes Vermeer—out of only 35 extant paintings by the Dutch master—during the last federal government shutdown in 1995. That exhibit, the first time Vermeer's paintings were displayed outside Europe, lost nearly three weeks of its 90-day run to the impasse between former President Bill Clinton and the Congress led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The NGA was able to wrangle enough private donations to reopen the exhibit after 10 days of the shutdown that began on December 16 of that year, though the rest of the museum remained closed off until Clinton and Gingrich reached an agreement on Jan. 6, 1996.

The Vermeer episode led Chris Klimek's 2009 profile of NGA curator Arthur K. Wheelock for the Washington Examiner. "Two things, the Grand Canyon being closed and that show, became lightning rods of discussion about how good things could come from government funding," Wheelock told Klimek. Several current shows at the NGA offer the potential for a similar narrative in the event of another extended shutdown. The failure of the White House and Congress to agree on a new budget resolution would delay the opening of "Gabriel Metsu 1629-1677," a 35-piece collection of the Dutch painter's still lifes and portraits. And much like the 1995 Vermeer show, this new exhibit would be the first monographic collection of Metsu pieces displayed in an American museum.

Smithsonian Institution: As of this point, the Smithsonian hasn't canceled any programs, according to spokesperson Linda St. Thomas. A spokesperson for the Hirshhorn Museum echoes St. Thomas' statement. Essential staff at the National Zoo include veterinarians, zookeepers, and workers at the animal commissary and hospital, St. Thomas tells Arts Desk, though it isn't clear if that group includes employees who clean up after the animals.

In the event of a government shutdown, all Smithsonian museums will be closed in their entirety, including gift shops and cafeterias, such as the popular Mitsitam Café at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Corcoran Gallery of Art: The Corcoran will offer free coffee and other refreshments at its café for the duration of the shutdown. The gallery also plans to ramp up its schedule of docent-led tours if government museums are closed. Additionally, government employees will given free admission when presenting their identification badges.

D.C. Office of Motion Picture and Television Development: Director Crystal Palmer and her staff were not deemed "essential" personnel by Mayor Vincent Gray yesterday and would therefore be furloughed as the federal budget crisis limits district services. Inquiries to Palmer about how a closure of her office would impact the revenue provided to local business by film and television productions were not returned at the time of this writing.

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