FEDERAL AGENCIES

Official portraits can define legacy, trim a few pounds -- but it comes at a price

The hallway outside Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz's office in the James V. Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., is lined with oil paintings of his predecessors.

The Department of Energy portraits -- grandiose depictions of leaders by well-known painters -- are not unlike others that adorn federal office buildings, courts and congressional meeting rooms.

Among the paintings of DOE leaders is Clinton Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, the only woman who's led the department.

"You'll see much more diversity in the selection of the secretary of Energy, I think that's a good thing," O'Leary said in an interview. "If for no other reason than it's a good thing to have a woman in a blue dress there."

But those portraits are under attack.

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In the ongoing fight over federal spending, lawmakers have seized on portrait costs -- which regularly top $20,000 -- as a waste of taxpayer cash. Lawmakers have temporarily blocked any federal cash from being used to pay for portraits, and there are bills pending in both chambers of Congress to permanently ban or limit portrait funding.

Another person whose portrait is hanging at DOE headquarters thinks that's a good idea.

"Get rid of 'em," said John Herrington, who was DOE chief during the Reagan administration. "You could do really great things with cameras these days. The portraits are expensive. It was just routine when I was there in the '80s."

That's not to say Herrington didn't like his portrait, painted by Peter Egeli. "My portrait is exactly what I wanted," Herrington said.

Egeli did about two sittings with Herrington at DOE headquarters, working mostly out of his studio off sketches. When Herrington saw the final product, he told Egeli, "I've really gained a lot of weight," he said, and he asked the artist to take off a few pounds. He said, "'Yeah, sure,' and he did it with a few strokes," Herrington joked.

The total price: $17,000, including the cost of the 48-by-36-inch portrait and a gilded frame.

His was one of the cheaper DOE portraits in recent years.

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu's official portrait commissioned in 2012 cost $21,100, according to records released to Greenwire. That was less than what taxpayers paid for some of his predecessors. DOE contracted portraits of O'Leary and George H.W. Bush Energy Secretary James Watkins for $25,000 each.

U.S. EPA has paid even more for some of its recent portraits. Former Administrator Lisa Jackson's portrait cost $38,350 in 2012, according to agency records. Ex-EPA chief Stephen Johnson's portrait cost $29,500 and the portrait of Michael Leavitt, who was EPA chief for just over a year during the George W. Bush administration, cost $26,000.

Those costs have irked lawmakers like Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who's been leading the charge in the House to ban taxpayer cash from funding portraits.

"American taxpayers shouldn't be called to sacrifice to pay for vanity paintings, which are often hidden from the public," Cassidy said earlier this year after a rider in the fiscal 2014 spending bill blocked all funding for portraits. "This is a waste of money that is rightly being eliminated."

'Portraits are necessary'

A Senate panel last month approved a bill that aims to permanently limit the practice by setting a cap of $20,000 of taxpayer money for portraits of officials in line to succeed the president (Greenwire, May 21).

That bill, if enacted, won't save much cash, the Congressional Budget Office announced this week.

CBO estimated that the bill would have "no significant effect on the federal budget." The budget office's analysis said any savings would be less than $500,000 per year because most years, fewer than 20 portraits are purchased for federal officials who aren't in the line of succession to the presidency.

Simmie Knox, a well-known artist who painted portraits of O'Leary, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and other prominent officials, thinks the congressional efforts are shortsighted.

"I think it's a bad idea, because portraits are necessary. It's a part of your history, it's how you record your history," said Knox, who's based in Silver Spring, Md.

He said the costs aren't outlandish, given the time that artists put into them and the rising costs of materials. He sometimes spends weeks or even months on a portrait, depending on the amount of detail and the scale. His subjects often want elaborate backgrounds that tell their stories, including state flags, landscapes, the U.S. Capitol or monuments. Some artists charge at least $50,000 per portrait, he said.

Knox disagreed that a photograph would serve the same purpose.

"We use permanent materials and some of us use traditional methods and approaches. It'll be around for a while," he said. "I think to put a photograph in there is kind of disrespectful in many ways."

Twitter: @rbravender | Email: rbravender@eenews.net

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