While members of Congress continue to wrangle over whether the nation can avoid the “fiscal cliff,” taxpayer funds are still being spent on what many might consider to be the less important details, like the official portraits of White House appointees.
According to the Washington Times, an oil portrait of EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson cost the agency nearly $40,000, while a painting of Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley will cost $41,200. Similarly, a three-by-four foot portrait of Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack will be completed for a fee of $22,500, and a portrait of the Secretary of the Interior will have a price tag of $24,900.
The painting of portraits of high-level government officials has been a tradition of both Democrat and Republican administrations for years. Since portraits are typically unveiled after the official has left office, the start of the painting process is also sometimes a signal that an office is about to become vacant.
Since last year, the government has paid out at least $180,000 for official portraits. Anne Fader, president of Portrait Consultants in Washington, an organization that represents portrait artists, said that while she was not at liberty to discuss specific government commissions, some government agencies begin the search for an artist early since paintings can take from eight to fourteen months to complete.
“These are done for future generations to see how we live now, and it’s really a tribute as well as part of a person’s legacy,” Fader said. “It’s a tremendous privilege to paint a portrait of somebody as accomplished as these people.”
However, David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a watchdog organization, questioned the value of spending tens of thousands of dollars on portraits that are often not available for public viewing.
For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently paid $19,500 for a portrait of Steve Preston who served as secretary of the agency for only seven months at the end of the Bush administration. Once completed, the portrait will hang with those of all other past HUD secretaries in a hallway on the tenth floor of the department’s headquarters in the nation’s capital. According to the Times, however, the paper was denied access to the paintings for a photo, because the portraits are located in a secure section of the building where people work.
Steve Ellis of another watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that portraits of presidents are reasonable, “but the further you move down the food chain, it’s less understandable.”