For the Culture: Barack and Michelle Obama’s Portraits to Make Multi-City Tour

Illustration for article titled For the Culture: Barack and Michelle Obama’s Portraits to Make Multi-City Tour
Photo: Mark Wilson (Getty Images)

Haven’t made it to Washington, D.C., to see forever president and first lady Barack and Michelle’s portraits yet? Not to worry; they may be coming to a city near you.


The Washington Post reports that the portraits, painted by artists Kehinde Wiley (Barack Obama) and Amy Sherald (Michelle Obama) have attracted record crowds since their unveiling in 2018, with many making what Director of the National Portrait Gallery Kim Sajet calls a“secular pilgrimage” to see them in person. Starting in June 2021, the portraits will make a pilgrimage of their own as they travel to five cities, enabling new audiences to view them in a museum setting.

The selected venues include the Art Institute of Chicago (June 18-Aug. 15, 2021); New York’s Brooklyn Museum (Aug. 27-Oct. 24, 2021); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Nov. 5-Jan. 2, 2022); the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (Jan. 14-March 13, 2022) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (March 25-May 30, 2022). The stops not only span the country, but most were also chosen to reflect the personal histories of the Obamas and Wiley and Sherald, who happen to be the first African Americans commissioned to create portraits of a president or first lady. As the Post notes:

The cities were selected by the gallery for personal and geographical reasons. The Obamas have deep connections to Chicago, for example, and the works will be there when the former president celebrates his 60th birthday. Sherald grew up in Georgia, and Wiley was born in Los Angeles, so those stops made sense, Sajet said. Wiley’s studio is based in Brooklyn, and its museum has several of his works in its collection.

“This tour is an opportunity for audiences in different parts of the country to witness how portraiture can engage people,” said Sajet. “You can use these portraits as a portal to all sorts of conversations.”

But before the portraits hit the road, the world can also see them in The Obama Portraits, an upcoming illustrated book from the Smithsonian Institution and the Princeton University Press “that celebrates the portraits and their influence,” and is due for release on Feb. 11 of this year. In the portraits’ absence, visitors to the National Portrait Gallery will be greeted with another painting of Obama in its “America’s Presidents” exhibition.

As for the tour’s first stop in the Obamas’ home city of Chicago (where they still maintain a residence and have based the Obama Foundation), James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, noted that “the Obamas have a very special relationship to Chicago and our museum in particular.” To accommodate what they hope will be “long lines,” the Art Institute will “radically expand free hours for Chicagoans.”

“We want to make sure everyone who wants to see these iconic portraits will be able to,” said Rondeau. “We are an institution that contains a history of portraits, from the Bronze Age to the present, of kings and queens, popes and rulers, but also everyday people...We will embed [the Obama portraits] within the DNA of the institution.”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?


Are sure that’s Michelle in that portrait??