Arts Desk

Yogi Boo-Boo: The Smithsonian and the Shutdown

The Shutdown and the Smithsonian

Culture didn’t vanish in D.C. with the federal government closed, even if it was a bit harder for tourists to find. Private museums such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Kreeger Museum opened their doors just as they always do, and probably earned some new visitors who were turned away from the National Mall. Some off-Mall institutions offered shutdown specials. Even Dumbarton Oaks, the august Byzantine and pre-Colombian museum and historic gardens in Georgetown, knocked off a few bucks for visitors. Locally, the (e)merge Art Fair took place in Southwest without a hitch, and a few D.C. art dealers even reported an uptick in walk-in traffic from furloughed workers.

So did anyone really notice the shutdown in D.C., from a cultural-tourism perspective? Aside from, you know, the thousands of cultural workers who were themselves furloughed—employees from the Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, National Endowment for the Arts and beyond? Or an estimated 1.5 million visitors who were locked out of Smithsonian museums this month?

All the federal museums felt the shutdown in some way. A week was shaved off Peter Coffin’s spectacular “Here & There” exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (The exhibit was scheduled to close on Oct. 6, but instead shut down on Oct. 1 with the rest of the government.) Fans of Byzantine visual culture must wait a little longer to see the highly anticipated “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” which was supposed to open at the National Gallery of Art on Oct. 6. Surely the National Air and Space Museum has jealously tracked box-office receipts for Gravity, since watching it on an IMAX screen in the same house with the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project beats seeing it in Georgetown or Alexandria. Hundreds of Clooney-free programs that were canceled can’t be seen anywhere else.

One constituency, however, has been hit truly hard: high-profile ascetics and Siddhas.

At the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the shutdown has lasted just long enough to cramp one of the museum’s most important weeks ever. This week, the Freer/Sackler should be receiving dignitaries and television crews from around the world for the opening of “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” a blockbuster exhibition on several thousand years’ worth of Asian artworks that tell the story of yoga. Even if “Yoga” opens as planned on Saturday, the word Freer/Sackler curators mutter under their breath won’t be “Namaste.”

Arguably no Washington arts institution planned a bigger October than the Freer/Sackler. And with no speedy solution in sight, museum officials put contingency plans in motion by transferring several special events slotted for this week to alternative venues. A major benefit gala—whose chairs include Hilaria and Alec Baldwin; Her Excellency Nirupama Rao, ambassador of India to the U.S.; and His Highness Gaj Singh II, Maharajah of Jodhpur-Marwar, among others—was moved to the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium this past week. Lectures on subjects ranging from mommy yoga to military yoga were rescheduled for NPR’s new headquarters on North Capitol Street. The Freer/Sackler still hopes to put bodies into “Yoga” for a preview on Friday—but if House Republicans don’t accommodate this week, then the museum will feed B-roll and images to the international news crews it’s depending on for coverage.

It’s worth noting that the actual public isn’t missing out on much of “Yoga” yet. This week’s presentations, from yogis such as Sanskritist and yoga scholar Sir James Mallinson and from Unity Woods Yoga Center founder John Schumacher, were listed as VIP-only events—part of a big red-carpet (red yoga mat?) roll-out.

Now they’ll be receptions for another elite list: essential personnel.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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