It’s not always easy to tell who’s coming or going as the Obama administration
starts its second term, but multiple agencies have quietly commissioned artists to paint official portraits of Cabinet secretaries and other top appointees — an expenditure often seen when officials are on the way out the door or already gone.
The Environmental Protection Agency
spent nearly $40,000 on a portrait of Administrator Lisa P. Jackson
, while a painting of Air Force
Secretary Michael B. Donley
will cost $41,200, according to federal purchasing records. The price tag for a 3-by-4-foot oil portrait of Agriculture Department
Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack
All told, the government has paid out at least $180,000 for official portraits since last year, according to a review by The Washington Times of spending records at federal agencies and military offices across government.
Painting people high up in all branches of the federal government
is a long-held tradition for Republicans and Democrats alike in Washington. Taxpayers picked up the tab for official portraits of top appointees in the Bush administration
, too, including more than $40,000 spent on a painting of former Attorney General John Ashcroft
, records show.
A portrait of former EPA
Administrator Stephen Johnson
, another Bush
appointee, cost about $30,000, according to EPA
Like most other agencies, USDA
officials wouldn’t say one way or another whether the $22,500 it’s spending to commission a portrait of Mr. Vilsack
signals his intent to leave the Obama administration
“Consistent with previous administrations, the department
has commissioned a portrait to be unveiled at some point following Secretary Vilsack
’s tenure,” USDA
spokesman Justin DeJong
wrote in an email to The Times. “USDA
solicited bids for the portrait and selected the lowest of five bids.”
In April, Mr. Vilsack
hosted the unveiling of a portrait of former Bush USDA
Secretary Ed Schaefer
, a painting that cost $30,500, while the portrait of another former Bush USDA
chief, Michael Johanns
, cost $34,425, records show.
, president of Portrait Consultants
in Washington, which represents portrait artists, said that because of policy, she could not discuss any specific government commissions. But she said some agencies start the search for an artist long before secretaries leave because paintings can take from eight to 14 months to complete and frame.
“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,” she said.
“It’s a tremendous privilege to paint a portrait of somebody as accomplished as these people,” she said, adding that agencies have made a “concerted effort to be cost conscious” over the past few years.
Not everyone agrees.
David Williams, president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance
, a watchdog group, questioned whether the government
ought to be spending tens of thousands of dollars for oil paintings of Cabinet secretaries often outside the public’s view.
“It’s not like people are going to be lining up for an exhibit, ‘HUD Secretaries Through the Years,’” Mr. Williams said. “And just because it’s a Washington tradition doesn’t mean they have to keep doing it.”
Indeed, the Department of Housing and Urban Development
recently hired an artist for $19,500 to paint Steve Preston, who served as HUD secretary for seven months in the waning days of the Bush administration
after the resignation of Alphonso Jackson.
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