Obama Paintings Brought 1 Million More Visitors To National Portrait Gallery

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama stand on stage together as their official portraits are unveiled at a ceremony at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington. Barack Obama's portrait was painted by artist Kehinde Wiley, and Michelle Obama's portrait was painted by artist Amy Sherald. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama’s portraits drew a million more people to the National Portrait Gallery last year, according to museum staff.

The Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., confirmed to HuffPost that the building saw a record 2.3 million visitors in 2018, compared to 1.3 million the year before. The Washington Post reported Monday that workers at the Smithsonian museum attributed the dramatic increase to the Obama portraits, which went up in the gallery February 2018.

“They have brought in so many people,” volunteer Mary Francis Koerner told the Post. “After 4:30 there’s an uptick of the younger generation, and that’s who they come to see.”

Barack Obama’s portrait, painted by Kehinde Wiley, is displayed on its own wall in the “America’s Presidents” gallery, which shows off portraits of every U.S. president in history excluding the current one.

Michelle Obama’s portrait, painted by Amy Sherald, was originally in the 20th Century Americans exhibition on the gallery’s first floor. The museum decided to relocate her portrait to the gallery’s more spacious third floor because of its overwhelming popularity among visitors.

The portraits have drawn attention for both their subjects and for the historic milestone of commissioning black artists to paint official portraits of a U.S. president and first lady. Sherald and Wiley are both celebrated for their mythical and vibrant depictions of black subjects.

Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. Wiley painted Barack Obama's official portrait, and Sherald painted Michelle Obama.
Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. Wiley painted Barack Obama’s official portrait, and Sherald painted Michelle Obama.

Wiley portrayed Barack Obama wearing a suit in a chair while encompassed by green leaves and colorful flowers that represent where he’s from. Sherald showed Michelle Obama wearing a mostly black-and-white gown with geometric designs, sitting in front of a pale blue background. Both artists previously told HuffPost that their projects examine black American identity while painting their subjects in a whimsical light.

Koerner, who has worked at the Portrait Gallery for 12 years, said visitors used to approach the museum information desk asking her where the presidents’ portraits are located.

“Now it’s, ‘Where are the Obamas?’ It was eight for eight this afternoon,” she said. 

A visitor takes picture of the official portrait of the former President Barack Obama in the first day open exhibit at the Sm
A visitor takes picture of the official portrait of the former President Barack Obama in the first day open exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Washington. 

The increase in visitors echoes what museum director Kim Sajet called “the Obama effect.” Sajet wrote earlier this month of the pilgrimage-like effect the Obama portraits have had on visitors.

“There is something fitting in the fact that portraits of the first black president and the first black first lady have rekindled a sense of pilgrimage within a space originally intended to elevate secular America,” Sajet wrote. “Visitors to the paintings take for themselves a special moment in our galleries that is not only about transition but also about potentiality — a pilgrimage from the past and into the future, with a brief moment to reflect.”