Portrait Predicament

Formal oil portraits of leaders are not associated with the non-profit sector. We usually associate them with the captains of industry who donate their money to non-profits, or with government officials such as governors and judges. These formally posed paintings hang in corporate boardrooms, country clubs, drawing rooms and state houses. You don't see them at the local food bank, and you don't want to.

This is because the symbolic weight--and cost--of an oil portrait is just too much for charities to bear. The very act of posing for an oil portrait is at odds with the inherent selflessness of the charitable impulse. The portrait's entire purpose is glorification of the individual. Unless you can persuade donors that the portrait's subject is the personification of Faith or Hope or better yet Charity, the donors will wonder how an oil painting advances the organization's mission. I, for one, can't think of how.

All the while, there is the subject of the portrait himself--usually a man. Either he wants the portrait because he thinks he deserves it or he accepts it because others importuned him. Regardless, he is engaged in an overtly egotistical act, and an expensive one. Both aspects of formal portraiture do not reside easily within the culture of most charities.

That's why the news that the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian spent $48,500 on an oil portrait of the museum's recently retired founding director, W. Richard West Jr., got so much attention--including Congressional attention--in January and is still being talked about.

Congress provides about 70 percent of the Smithsonian's budget. West himself commissioned the 2005 portrait by New York artist Burton Silverman after consulting with some members of the museum's advisory board. Earlier reports that West had spent "lavishly" on travel were already generating negative publicity for the museum. And it was only last year that Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small resigned in disgrace over similar fancy expenditures. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has become a rather effective one-man overseer of the non-profit sector in recent years, told the Board of Regents, "It appears that Mr. West was determined to meet Mr. Small's champagne lifestyle, glass for glass." Ouch.

The senator's wry and biting observation was contained in a lengthy letter requesting five years of records of West's activities, including "any details regarding an official portrait of Mr. West."

I'm sure the museum trustees are kicking themselves because they now understand that an oil portrait is not like luxury travel and fancy parties. It does not disappear into an expense account where itemizations might be explained away, no matter how lamely. It becomes a very visible symbol of excess that the press and the public cannot ignore. It is reproduced in all the stories, and there are more stories than there otherwise might have been because there is a good picture to use. Trust me, this is how TV producers and editors think.

It is a difficult way to relearn the old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words": When a U.S. senator is involved, a picture can also be worth an investigation into whether the portrait and the "luxury" travel expenditures constitute unlawful excess benefit transactions.

Someday the museum trustees will ruefully realize that long after the financial indiscretions are forgotten, everyone will remember the $48,500 portrait. People may even remember the name of the man depicted standing in front of the museum with his suit coat draped over his left shoulder (a silly pose to begin with, in my opinion). It will not be a pleasant realization to a trustee of donated funds.

Here's my advice to museum trustees who might be tempted to honor charity executives with an expensive oil portrait: Try Photoshop--it's cheaper.

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Bruce D. Collins

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