The exhibition Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House, honoring the 50th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. tomorrow (October 1, 2011–May 6, 2012). It is amazing to realize that before 1961 Congress did not appropriate funds to maintain an art or decorative arts collection at the executive residence. The government routinely provided funds for the furnishing and operation of the house, but appropriations to acquire and preserve appropriate, historically significant works of art and furniture for the public rooms were rare.
In the past Congress authorized the president to auction and sell worn or obsolete household goods from the White House and use the proceeds to furnish the White House as they saw fit. The most notable auction occurred in 1882 when President Chester A. Arthur cleaned out the White House selling off 30 barrels of china and 24 wagonloads of furniture and “junk.”
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy initiated a three-part program to restore the historic integrity of the public rooms of the White House, acquire a collection of fine and decorative arts, and establish the White House Historical Association to research and publish books and educational materials interpreting the White House and its history. Every first lady since has taken an active interest in and supported the work of the association in the acquisition of historic furnishings and art work for the permanent White House collection, and the preservation of public rooms.