The Mona Lisa, The Scream, The Tom Vilsack: All Pricy Pieces of Art

Nice article here by The Washington Times showing what some could argue is government excess by the Obama and Bush administrations. I think it’s certainly worthy to keep funding portraits of Presidents and Vice Presidents for history’s sake. However, does every cabinet official need a portrait at these costs? I get that women in future generations shouldn’t be deprived of John Ashcroft’s rugged good looks — or songbird voice, for that matter — but is this necessary?

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: $22,500.

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 records.

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.

Ann Fader, 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.”