Presidential style

BMA show: Nation's leader, for better or worse, is arts patron and taste leader, too.

September 23, 2000

THE TERRIFYING inference to be drawn from the new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art is that the election in November will choose the nation's taste in decor, dress and art.

Either Al Gore or George Bush (and their wives) will choose, inspire or design furniture, dinnerware, clothing, paintings, buildings and landscape that will be exhibited for centuries hence as telling relics of our era. Ouch.

The show of presidential taste and patronage at the Baltimore Museum of Art, running until shortly before Inauguration Day next year, is about decorative arts and national history.

Curator James A. Abbott arranged the 100 or so borrowed objects around two themes, regal and republican. This distinction begins with the tension between the official tastes of George Washington (regal) and Thomas Jefferson (republican). Some might call these institutional and populist.

But the regal taste is political, not personal. It does not mean the president thinks himself a king but that he wants the nation's stability, grandeur or unity symbolized.

Jefferson's republicanism was ideological, especially after he had witnessed the French Revolution, but did not mean that he considered himself a common man.

The designs for the White House itself, both realized and otherwise, show it not as the seat of power but as the stage for displaying power.

Anyone looking for the elegance of Jacqueline Kennedy will, indeed, find it here. But the surprise might come from two presidents patronizing the cutting-edge artistic taste of their times: Rutherford B. Hayes and Jimmy Carter.

This show is less art for art's sake than most museum fare. It is more about education and about what the arts reveal of society.

So the BMA, while still truncated by the renovation of its permanent galleries, is reaching out toward new audiences with a political show for a political season.

The thought of giving all this esthetic power to either Al Gore or George W. Bush is scary. It's enough to provoke a write-in vote.

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