Last month marked a year since the portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama was introduced to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the two vibrant illustrations of the couple have been a major draw for visitors. According to the Washington Post, the portraits of the Obamas were instrumental in helping the Smithsonian museum break a visitor record.
The portraits—which were created by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—has taken the visitorship at the gallery to new levels. The Smithsonian American Art Museum ended 2018 with a total of 2.3 million visitors; an increase of a million more visitors than they had the previous year. Those who work at the National Gallery’s information desk say that they’ve never witnessed new paintings draw in so many people prior to the addition of the Obama portraits. Gallery volunteer Mary Francis Koerner says that visitors would typically ask to be directed to the portraits of the presidents but that question has changed over time. “Now it’s ‘Where are the Obamas?” she told the news outlet. “They have brought in so many people. After 4:30 there’s an uptick of the younger generation, and that’s who they come to see.”
While the Obama portraits are visually captivating, they hold deeper meaning beyond the surface. The couple selected two African-American artists to create the artwork; making them the first Black artists to receive presidential commissions. “Big museums like this are dedicated to what we as a society hold most dear,” Wiley said in a statement, according to the Denver Post. “Growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles, there weren’t too many people who looked like me on those walls. The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States — it doesn’t get any better than that.”
The National Portrait Gallery was created in 1962 and the tradition of adding portraits of outgoing presidents began in 1994.