National Gallery of Art to reopen West Building on Friday

Visitors enjoy John Quidor’s 1849 oil on canvas work “The Return of Rip Van Winkle” in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the National Gallery of Art reopening of its West Building (Part 1)

After closing its doors a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, the National Gallery of Art reopens its West Building on Friday.

Visitors can reserve free, timed passes online starting at 10 a.m. Monday.

“This is such good news,” Head of Gallery & Studio Programs Heidi Hinish told WTOP.

“The sculpture garden has already been open, but we’re so excited the West Building is reopening. … Our primary concern is the safety of our visitors and staff. The slow, gradual reopening is a response to the fact that people are getting vaccinated and it’s becoming safer.”

Guests will find a new digital welcome kiosk with touchless technology in the Rotunda.

“This kiosk has a super-cool, gesture-based technology so you don’t actually have to touch it,” said Hinish.

“The kiosk can provide you with some guided tours and some ideas on how to make your visit personal. … There’s also a new design and concept in the Garden Café on the Ground Floor, so if you haven’t visited in a while, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by these new additions.”

As for exhibits, the reopened West Building will include works by Carrie Mae Weems in conversation with Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s “The Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial” (1900).

“It’s a new design and a new way to think about how contemporary artists are responding and connecting with issues that are in our collection of older art,” said Hinish.

“It’s a work of art where people stop and look — a sculpture of Robert Gould Shaw, who was the leader of the Massachusetts 54th, a white man who led more than 1,000 African-American soldiers.”

Of course, you can revisit all your usual favorites in the West Building as well.

“Mostly the main hallway of the upper level of the West Building will be open for you to explore and revisit,” said Hinish.

“Our incredible Renaissance Collection, the beautiful French paintings, I know French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism is such a big favorite with our public, our American galleries, the Dutch galleries, really it’s all going to be there for you.”

The National Gallery of Art said it hopes to similarly reopen the East Building in June, currently featuring a temporary artist installation by Kay Rosen called “SORRY” at the 4th Street entrance.

“Kay Rosen is an artist that experiments with text and word play,” said Hinish.

“I encourage people to come see what that word evokes for you. Is it sorry we’re closed? Sorry for all the awful things that have happened this year with the pandemic and racial reckoning we’re dealing with?”

If you’re not vaccinated yet, you can still enjoy a series of virtual programming.

That includes the popular series Art of Looking every Friday at 1 p.m.

“A wildly popular program,” said Hinish.

“It’s one hour and one work of art. We really just slow down and look carefully at that work of art. … This month we are celebrating Asian-American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Each of the works will be by Asian artists.”

May is also National Meditation Month, so you can enjoy Guided Gallery Meditations.

“These are available on YouTube,” Hinish said. “They’re short, three to four minutes, just slowing you down, guiding you through the work of art in a really soothing and calm, mindful approach to exploring a work of art. It’s a great way to catch your breath and step outside of your busy life,” said Heinisch.

You can enjoy the family-friendly series Artful Conversations with recycled puppets too.

“Artful Conversations are so much fun,” said Hinish.

“This month, we are working with our rare book librarian, Yuri Long, exploring an artist book by Ronald King, who made these incredible puppets that fit in the book. Then the text of the book is by Ray Fisher. … Then we’re going to create our own puppets just by using materials you can find around the house.”

And there’s the weekly film program streaming every Wednesday online as well.

“Our film program, I’ve always thought, is one of the best-kept secrets in Washington, D.C.,” said Heinisch.

“This Wednesday, we’re going to be screening a film that illustrates the history of an Italian villa across five centuries. Then we’re also going to show a related virtual film that features a National Gallery curator discussing the gallery’s collection as it relates to the villa sculptures.”

You can enjoy the 70th Annual Mellon Lectures every Sunday through May 30.

“We bring in scholars around the world to speak,” said Hinish.

“This year, we’re featuring Jennifer Roberts, a professor at Harvard University. Her six-part series is focused on printmaking. … She is a really compelling and interesting speaker, so I encourage people to check it out.”

Finally, you can enjoy the gallery’s Sound Thoughts on Art podcast every other Sunday.

“This is just a really exciting innovation that the gallery developed during COVID,” said Hinish.

“It brings together a musician and someone who is knowledgeable about a particular work of art. In this case, on the eighth installment, we have Rafiq Bhatia, a really innovate musician who is responding to the James Turrell work called ‘New Light’ and our curator Molly Donovan.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the National Gallery of Art reopening of its West Building (Part 2)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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