In 1968, following major renovations, the Old Patent Office Building opened as the permanent home for two Smithsonian museums, the National Collection of Fine Arts (since renamed the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and the National Portrait Gallery. This exhibition marks the fiftieth anniversary of that grand event. During the 1960s, when historic preservation was just beginning to gain traction in the United States, it was fortuitous that the capital’s third oldest public building—a model of Greek revival architecture—was spared the fate of being demolished to make room for a parking lot.
Over the past five decades, in addition to serving as a vibrant downtown center for the arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery have anchored this neighborhood amidst a sea of changes. The community was largely impacted by the race riots of 1968, and in the 1980s, the decline of the neighborhood caused many of the area’s retailers to close. More recently, particularly since the construction of the Verizon Center in the late 1990s, the neighborhood has experienced a revival. While the two museums have felt the effects of these transformations to some degree, they have consistently produced quality exhibitions, publications, and programs while steadily—and substantially—expanding their collections. As we look forward to a promising future, it is reassuring to look back at how far we have come.