President Obama sits for first-ever 3D Presidential portrait, which was produced by the Smithsonian Institution, June 9, 2014. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza


This post has been updated with links to the Obama White House archive site.


FROM THE MOMENT President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama entered the White House, they reimagined how 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could be utilized to engage the American people, youth in particular, and bring the “People’s House” to life with innovative programming and historic events. Over the course of eight years in the White House, a significant number of the remarks delivered, awards bestowed, and fresh ideas the Obamas put into action, involved art and design.

“Barack and I, when we first came to Washington, we vowed to open up the White House to as many young people as possible, especially those who ordinarily wouldn’t have a chance to visit. So just about every time we host any kind of cultural event, a concert or performance, we ask the performers to come a few hours early and host a special workshop just for our young people,” Mrs. Obama said at the opening of the new Whitney Museum of American Art in 2015.

“The message we’re trying to send is simple. We’re telling our young people: The White House is your house. You belong here just as much as anyone else in this country. We’re telling them: ‘Make yourselves at home in this house. Be inspired by the artists and performers you see. And start dreaming just a little bigger, start reaching just a little higher for yourself.'”

From President Obama’s policy priorities to the art on the White House walls and Mrs. Obama’s participation in major museum openings, the power of art and its potential to create opportunity and drive change were emphasized at the White House. During their tenure, there were many groundbreaking moments, including the first Maker Faire, first South by South Lawn festival, and first art work by an African American woman to enter the White House collection. President Obama became the first President to sit for a 3D portrait and Google Art Project created the first-ever 360-degree virtual tour of the White House.

The importance of art reverberated beyond the White House, too. For example, the first-ever Medal of Arts were awarded to artists by the U.S. State Department during the Obama Administration. Key highlights from the past two terms are featured below:


Met Museum Opens New Wing
May 18: First Lady Michelle Obama participates in ceremony opening new American wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A Place for a King
June 2009: President Obama brings bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. by Charles Alston into the Oval Office where it is displayed beneath a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and adjacent to a bust of President Lincoln.

“As the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.” — President Obama

Selecting Arts Leadership
Sept. 16: President Obama names leadership for President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, with Margo Lion and George Stevens serving as co-chairs, and Mary Schmidt Campbell as vice-chair. Campbell is president of Spelman College in Atlanta. Earlier in her career, she served as executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Potential for American Latino Museum
Sept. 23: President Obama appoints commission to study potential creation of a national museum dedicated to celebrating the history and achievements of Latinos in America.

Updating the Walls
Oct. 6: White House releases list of 47 works of art the Obamas are borrowing from Washington museums for display in East and West Wings, and their private living quarters, including paintings by African American artists Alma Thomas, Glenn Ligon, and William H. Johnson.


IMAGE: Top left, Martin Luther King Jr., by Charles Alston. | National Portrait Gallery


Preservation Committee Members Named
Feb. 3: President Obama announces members of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, including Lonnie Bunch, Thelma Golden, Lew Manilow, Linda Johnson Rice, Paul Schimmel, and Michael Smith.

Honoring Exemplary Design
July 21: First Lady Michelle Obama hosts Cooper Hewitt Design Awards luncheon, honoring the nation’s best in architecture, landscape design, product design, interior design. Mrs. Obama participates annually in the museum’s recognition of top designers in various fields.


President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” on display near the Oval office. Bridges is the little girl portrayed the 1963 painting. | Official White House Photo by Pete Souza


Subject of History
July 15: President Obama meets brave civil rights figure Ruby Bridges who was just six-years-old when she integrated a New Orleans elementary school as a part of court-ordered integration in 1960, six years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Norman Rockwell painting depicting her experience hangs outside the Oval Office in the West Wing of the White House.

Month Dedicated to Art
Oct. 3: President Obama issues proclamation declaring October National Arts and Humanities Month. He issues the document annually throughout his presidency.

Obama Goes to See King
Oct. 14: President Obama visits the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the National Mall. It opened in August, but the dedication ceremony was delayed due to Hurricane Irene. The event is rescheduled for Oct. 16, a couple of days after his visit.


A collaboration with Google Art Project allows visitors to explore the White House online – April 3, 2012 | Video by The White House


Arts & Humanities Medals Awarded
Feb. 13: President Obama honors recipients of 2011 National Medal of the Art & National Medal of Humanities, including artist Martin Puryear.

Arts in Public Schools
April 2: At Myrtilla Miner Elementary School in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Jack Buckley join students and teachers for an event announcing the findings in an NCES report about the state of K-12 arts learning and teaching. (Watch Video)

Teaming Up with Google Art
April 3: White House collaborates with Google Art Project to create a virtual 360-degree tour of the public rooms of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Official Bush Portraits
May 31: The President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcome former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush to the White House for official portrait unveiling.

Celebrating Heritage Through Art
Sept. 15: White House hosts Latino art exhibit, featuring 20th and 21st century works, in celebration of Hispanic Heritage month.

State Dept. Honors Artists
Nov. 12: The first U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts are awarded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Carrie Mae Weems, Jeff Koons, Cai Guo-Qiang, Shahzia Sikander, and Kiki Smith, for their commitment to the Art in Embassies program and international cultural exchange.


Painting White House Pink
Oct. 24: The White House is illuminated in pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a tradition carried on throughout the Obama Administration.

New Arts Committee Member
Nov. 18: President Obama announces Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall among new members of President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.


At opening of The Costume Institute’s Anna Wintour Costume Center, First Lady Michelle Obama says, “As we cut this ribbon today,…I am thinking about all the young people who will find their way to this space.” – May 5, 2014 | Video by The Met


Obama Foundation Established
Jan. 31: Martin Nesbitt, J. Kevin Poorman, and Julianna Smoot announce formation of Barack Obama Foundation in order to begin planning for the president’s library.

Cultural History of Fashion
May 5: First Lady Michelle Obama gives remarks at opening of The Costume Institute’s Anna Wintour Costume Center and its inaugural exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Watch Video, above)

School Success Through Arts
May 20: President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities announces three-year, $5 million expansion of its Turnaround Arts initiative in low-performing schools with support from U.S. Department of Education, National Endowment of the Arts, Ford Foundation, and other private foundations and companies.

President Sits for 3D Portrait
June 9: Smithsonian and USC Institute for Creative Technologies collaborate to create first-ever 3-D Presidential portrait by capturing President Obama’s likeness using handheld 3-D scanners and single-lens reflex cameras and a mobile light stage, set up before President Lincoln’s official portrait. The project was inspired by the Lincoln life mask at the National Portrait Gallery.

White House Welcomes Makers
June 18: White House hosts first-ever Maker Faire where President Obama announces new steps to encourage manufacturing, innovation, and entrepreneurship; declares National Day of Making; and participants explore expanding movement to create, innovate, tinker, and make ideas and solutions into reality.

Historic Portrait on View
Dec. 2: Smithsonian Castle presents exhibition of President Obama’s historic 3D portraits, busts and life masks created via high tech scanning in June by teams from the Smithsonian and USC.


The White House is illuminated to celebrate U.S. Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling. A White House official told Politico: “The pride colors reflect the diversity of the LGBT community, and tonight, these colors celebrate a new chapter in the history of American civil rights.” – June 26, 2015 | Photo via Politico


IMAGE: Above right, 3-D–printed bust of President Obama created by the Smithsonian using 3-D scanning technology. | Photo courtesy of Digital Program Office, Smithsonian Institution


State Dept. Hails Artists
Jan. 21: The Medal of Arts is awarded to seven artists including Mark Bradford, Sam Gilliam, Julie Mehretu, Kehinde Wiley, Xu Bing, Maya Lin, and Pedro Reyes, at U.S. Department of State for their contributions.

Historic Painting Debuts
Feb. 10: The Old Family Dining Room is refreshed with a selection of 20th century art, including an Alma Thomas painting installed on the north wall. “Resurrection,” a 1966 acrylic and graphite on canvas painting (left) is first work of art by an African American woman to enter the White House permanent collection.

New China Unveiled
April 27: In progress since fall 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama presents new Obama State China (below, at right) in “Kailua Blue,” inspired by the waters off the coast of Hawaii, the President’s home state. The 11-piece table setting features a soup tureen for the first time. (Watch Video)

Whitney Museum Opens New Building
April 30: First Lady Michelle Obama gives remarks at opening celebration of Whitney Museum of American Art building in the Meatpacking District of New York City, designed by Renzo Piano. She addresses the importance of cultural institutions creating educational programming and reaching out to youth, particularly for those who do not feel like they belong in such venues. (Watch Video)

Foundation Chooses Chicago
May 12: Obama Foundation selects South Side Chicago as location for future Obama Presidential Center. (Watch Video)

Celebrating Right to Marry
June 26: U.S. Supreme Court issues landmark ruling giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide and that evening the White House is illuminated in rainbow colors.

Foundation Expands Board
July 30: Obama Foundation announces new members of board of directors—John Doerr, Thelma Golden and Julianna Smoot.

Couture Holiday Decor
Dec. 2: London-based fashion designer Duro Olowu designs and decorates the Vermeil Room of the White House for the Christmas holiday season, along with Carolina Herrera, KENZO, and Carol Lim and Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony, who also contributed their style visions in nearby spaces.

Foundation Narrows Architect List
Dec. 21: David Adjaye’s Adjaye Associates make shortlist of seven architects being considered to design new Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.


IMAGE: Above right, ALMA THOMAS, “Resurrection,” 1966 (acrylic and graphite on canvas). | White House Collection, White House Historical Society


“Mothership (Capsule),” 2009 (wood, salvaged tin and 22-inch chrome rim) by Jefferson Pinder. Inspired by a NASA space capsule, this sculpture is composed of wood from President Obama’s Inaugural platform and features audio of “Space is the Place” by Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” It is on view when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens – Sept. 24, 2016. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine


First Lady Views Major Exhibition
July 29: First Lady Michelle Obama tours “Mastry,” Kerry James Marshall’s 35-year survey exhibition at MCA Chicago with the artist, his wife, and the museum’s director (left).

Encouraging Love of Museums
March 12: In celebration of Women’s History Month, Obama Administration Officials visit local museums to participate in Museum Day Live! and encourage women and girls of color to visit museums and explore arts and science.

Foundation Names Architects
June 30: Obama Foundation selects architectural team of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners and Interactive Design Architects (IDEA), a minority- and women-owned business enterprise, to design Obama Presidential Center.

Engaging White House Art
July 5: White House Historical Association, Artsy and Robert Rauschenberg announce five winners of “This is Your Art Competition,” an opportunity for university students to engage with White House art and create a short video exploring its artistic and historic context. Judges included Caroline Baumann, Melissa Chiu, JiaJia Fei, Agnes Gund, and artist Kehinde Wiley.

Foundation Announces Site
July 29: President Obama announces site for Obama Presidential Center is Jackson Park in the heart of South Side Chicago.

Arts & Humanities Medals Awarded
Sept. 22: President Obama awards the 2015 National Medal of Arts (video) to artists Ralph Lemon and Jack Whitten, among other recipients.

African American Museum Opens
Sept. 24: President Obama dedicates new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Following his remarks, First Lady Michelle Obama and four generations of the Bonner family, join him to ring a historic church bell, officially opening the museum, which features a visual art gallery devoted to works by African American artists. (Explore Museum)

Changemakers Take Over South Lawn
Oct. 3: Inspired by the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, the White House hosts first-ever South by South Lawn Festival of Ideas, Art and Action, a gathering of changemakers, activists, and artists. (Watch Video, below)

Foundation Prioritizes Inclusion
Oct. 11: Obama Foundation announces formation of Inclusion Council to ensure that the foundation’s work is informed by diverse views and opinions. Perri Irmer, president of the DuSable Museum, is among 18 initial members.

Celebrating 20th Century Art
Oct. 14: First Lady Michelle Obama pays tribute to White Historical Association and art and design students following a panel discussion with White House curators and Committee for the Preservation of the White House member Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

At Home at the White House
Nov. 1: Architectural Digest magazine releases its December issue with a cover story exploring the selection of 20th and 21st century art displayed on the walls of the Obama private White House residence, including works by African American artists Alma Thomas, Glenn Ligon, and William H. Johnson, as well as Susan Rothenberg, Sam Francis, Hans Hofmann, Giorgio Morandi, Robert Mangold, Sean Scully, among others.

Effective Youth Art Programs
Nov. 15: On behalf of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, First Lady Michelle Obama recognizes 12 exemplary after-school and out-of-school arts and humanities programs.


IMAGE: Top left, First Lady Michelle Obama at MCA Chicago with Kerry James Marshall, and his wife Cheryl Lynn Bruce, at left, and Madeleine Grynsztejn, the museum’s director, at right.| Photo courtesy MCA Chicago


South by South Lawn Festival (SXSL): Among the innovators, insightful panels, and creative demonstrations, there was a conversation between architect David Adjaye and artist James Turrell, Chuck Close was on site taking large format photos, and Kim Drew took over the White House Instagram account during SXSL – Oct. 3, 2016. | Video by The White House


Archiving Digital History
Jan. 5: White House outlines plans to archive first social media presidency, including collaborating with the digital art organization Rhizome to publish “a series of multi-media, digital essays that explain Internet culture associated with the Obama administration.”

A Day of Service
On Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the Obamas visit a local family shelter where they donated Sasha and Malia’s White House swing set, played with children having a ball on the equipment, and helped paint a mural honoring King. (Watch Video, below)

Paying Tribute to Artists
Jan. 17: Nick Cave, Jenny Holzer, Wolf Kahn, Imran Qureshi, Pat Steir, and Rachel Whiteread receive the International Medal of the Arts, along with six other artists, for commitment to the Art in Embassies program at U.S. Department of State. CT


The Obamas mark last Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at the White House with a day of service, visiting Jobs Have Priority Naylor Road Family Shelter – Jan. 16, 2017 | Video by The White House


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.