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A Study in Contrasts: The 2017 Presidential Inauguration Festivities and Women’s March on Washington

Image: Donald J. Trump / By Michael O’ Brien, Donald J. Trump (Official Portrait), 1989 (printed 2011), inkjet print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Bill and Sally Wittliff (© Michael O'Brien).

Image: Donald J. Trump / By Michael O’ Brien, Donald J. Trump (Official Portrait), 1989 (printed 2011), inkjet print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Bill and Sally Wittliff (© Michael O'Brien).


By Nancy Nesvet

Washington D.C. – On Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017, two artworks were exhibited in celebration of the event. In the Capitol Building, George Caleb Bingham’s “The Verdict of the People,” on loan from the Saint Louis Art Museum, hung over the dais table at the inaugural lunch for Congress and the president and vice president.

In depicting a party of white men who had apparently voted, with the lone black man pushing a cart, and the three women, all of whom could not vote, waving a banner proclaiming “Freedom for Virtue, Restriction for Vice”, the painting seemed an odd choice for the lunch after President Trump’s oath of office.

The second artwork, displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, is the only official portrait, so far, of President Donald J. Trump. The photograph, shown here, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, made by photographer Michael O’Brien for a Fortune magazine cover issued on September 11, 1989, and later used for Mr. Trump’s autobiography, “Surviving at the Top,” depicts Mr. Trump realistically with an apple floating above his head.

Although the apple is acknowledged to be a symbol of New York City, it is also a symbol of the apple the serpent tempted Eve to eat, taking humankind from the ease of the Garden of Eden to a world of work and pain. Portrayed by so many artists, the apple symbol is so tempting to grasp, to eat, to make one’s own, instead of leaving it as part of the earth for all to gaze upon, and realizing there are some things we must not touch, since we know not the outcome. The photographer’s process involved Mr. Trump tossing the apple in the air, leaving it hanging in space. What does that say about the symbol of New York City, its inhabitants and its future? Art matters. Symbols matter.

There was a dearth of visual art, poetry or top-name talent at the Inauguration and the concert that followed. Performances by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Radio City Rockettes and country music singers that included headliner Toby Keith, the rock band 3 Doors Down and Jackie Evancho, singing the National Anthem, graced the inaugural concert. Also appearing at the public concert were The Piano Guys; the Frontmen of Country; Ravi Drums and Travis Greene.

Invitees to the official balls taking place Inauguration evening were entertained by the Irish ensembles Riverdance and Feet of Flames, courtesy of Michael Flatley, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, singing one of their hits, “Soul Man,” and Tim Rushlow and His Big Band. Erin Boheme serenaded President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” at the Freedom Ball, where 14-year-old Lexi Mae Walker also performed. The talent pool clearly departed from previous inauguration’s prominent and popular musicians and vocalists.

Visual art was largely absent at the Inauguration, even in the form of posters and banners. The Smithsonian Museums were open (except the Renwick Gallery, closed due to its proximity to the Inauguration site, and the National Museum of the American Indian, which was closed due to it hosting a ball on Inauguration night). The National Museum of American History sponsored a special exhibition: “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.”

Private and municipal art museums and galleries nationwide responded to the incoming president and his projected policies with an “Art Strike.” Although many galleries and theatre venues in Washington, D.C., New York City and around the United States consequently closed, putting their heads under the proverbial covers, there were creative exceptions.

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York opened with a program, “Artists Speak Out,” a stage to release angst and a discussion about immigration, race and democracy drawing from the art on display at the museum.

In solidarity with #J20, hosted by Occupy Museums, the Queens Museum (New York), was open free of charge all afternoon for people to produce posters, banners and buttons for the next day’s march. Materials were provided to make art, and instructors led workshops, while “FutureClown’s Inaugural Address,” a performance by artist Rachel Mason, live streamed from Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE).

A church in D.C. similarly was open most of the night on January 20 to welcome artists making banners and posters for the next day’s Women’s March on Washington.

The Brooklyn Museum sponsored a reading of Langston Hughes’ 1935 poem, “Let America Be America Again”; the Rubin Museum hosted a meditation and yoga workshop, with Museum Director Patrick Sears noting, “Especially during times of political division, our art can provide insight on themes like the search for wisdom, interdependence and compassionate action.”

The RISD Museum (Providence), El Museo El Barrio (New York City) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art admitted the public free. The Walker Museum in Minneapolis opened to “offer a space of gathering and respite where all ideas and perspective are always welcome,” according to Olga Viso, executive director.

The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, which issued a statement inviting, “all in our community to join us in reflection and conversation,” allowed visitors to pay what they wished as did The New Museum (New York City), which opened, “in recognition of art’s power to transform communities and to foster tolerance and empathy.” Bard Graduate Center (New York City), ever innovative, offered staged readings from the Constitution of the United States. The Baltimore Museum of Art had readings and performances at a free event with Director Christopher Bedford announcing: “We want everyone to know the BMA is a safe haven for the city during a time of change.”

On Inauguration Eve, this writer, representing Artscope in the press section of the Creative Coalition Ball, interviewed Tim Daly, the Creative Coalition’s president, who assured me that if President Trump ended funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other federally-funded arts organizations, that private organizations like Creative Coalition would take over funding.

Certainly, the amazing response of artists, musical, performance and visual, at the approximately 400 marches nationwide the next day, indicated that the arts would not die with so many participating and supporting art and artists. It is the mission of artists to make note of and bring awareness to the beauty and problems of the planet we inhabit and the people who live on it.

In that spirit, I witnessed and took part in the Women’s March on Washington, a gathering of diverse people who expressed their various needs and desires in a communal voice, calling on the new administration to fix their nation so all may thrive.

Coming from all over the United States, and in some cases, other nations, these marchers joined people worldwide in demanding recognition of their selves, their needs and their morals and the shared needs and morals of others we share our nation with. Men, women and children, in pink hats, veils and kippot put their heads together to urge the President of the United States to reconsider hurtful legislation he has proposed.

Posters drew attention to their various needs. Costumes expressed the opinions of people they sought to emulate, from suffragists to superheroes and heroines. Slogans and long quotations from Walt Whitman to Thomas Paine to the Bible expressed what those in attendance wanted from their leaders.

Words matter. Symbols matter. Flags matter. Visual art and poetry and speeches, a form of performance art, matter and motivate people and unite them under literal banners. The plethora of art expressed in this march drew from all philosophies, politics, religions and ethnicities. It was a sea of causes, an ocean of people proclaiming ways to fix society to make it better for more.

In a march that event organizers said attracted over one million participants in Washington, D.C., and over five million worldwide, people joined together in proclaiming their truths. If “truth is beauty, beauty truth (“Ode to a Grecian Urn,” by John Keats)”, then artists must continue to draw from the needs of the many to advocate and bring the beauty that emanates from those truths.

In this vein, Artscope has been happy to publish photographs documenting the people at both the inauguration, inaugural concert and Women’s March a day later, hoping that our readers not only notice the numbers, but also the diversity of people, gender, ethnicity and age that took part in both these events, so that you, our readers may judge for yourselves the truth and find beauty.