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by Sidney Lawrence
More than a million visitors are expected for the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, the largest number ever, with most of them thronged onto the National Mall -- overflowing, presumably, into the many museums that ring the greensward. Festivities begin at 10 am in front of the U.S. Capitol, starting with the U.S. Marine Band, an invocation by the famous homophobic evangelist Rick Warren and a song by Aretha Franklin.

Obama takes the oath of office from chief justice John G. Roberts, and then gives his much-anticipated inaugural address, followed by a poem and the Star-Spangled Banner. Next is lunch, and then the official inaugural parade makes its way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, followed by no less than ten official inaugural balls.

Meanwhile, what’s happening at those eight museums on the Mall perimeter? Smithsonian museums, which are free, are open the usual hours, 10 am to 5:30 pm, and have laid on extra staff to check bags and work in the shops and cafes. Thanks to a $700,000 grant from the presidential inaugural committee, the Smithsonian is opening the bathroom-ready Castle and National Museum of American History at 8 am.

The National Gallery of Art, for its part, is closed for Jan. 20 (for security reasons), but does have a pair of timely exhibitions on view: Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of the first five U.S. presidents; and "Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans," Jan. 18-Apr. 26, 2009. Also notable: Leo Villareal’s Multiverse, his spectacular 200-foot long "Rhapsody in Blue" LED installation in the underground concourse connecting the old and new NGA buildings.

The Hirshhorn Museum’s sculpture garden, which looks out over the Mall, is closed for the inauguration, though one corner remains open, where visitors can add ribbons to Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree for Washington, D.C.

Also notable is an East African textile at the National Museum of African Art, displaying Obama’s image with a text in Swahili that reads, "God has blessed us with peace and love." Also on view: "African Vision: the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection," donated in 2005 by the Walt Disney Corporation, which supposedly bought the works from New Yorkers Paul and Ruth Tishman to inspire its cartoonists.

Other highlights on the Mall include "Fritz Scholder: Indian / Not Indian" at the National Museum of the American Indian. Though Scholder’s brand of pop expressionism, part Francis Bacon and part Peter Max, is out of fashion in high-art precincts, it’s worth a look nevertheless.

Just north of the Mall, in the National Portrait Gallery, is Shepard Fairey’s Che-meets-Warhol "Hope" poster of Obama. The iconic stencil collage was donated to the museum by collectors Tony and Heather Podesta (lobbyists both). Also at the Portrait Gallery is "One Life: Mask of Lincoln," an exhibition that demonstrates the ways that Lincoln used the then-new art of photography to craft his public image, first as a clean-shaven candidate and later as a Civil War leader in a "warrior beard."

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art, not far from the White House reviewing stand, is "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power," which closes Jan. 25. "Buy one ticket, get the second free." 

Another art event in the district is "The Arts of Change," an artists’ ball cosponsored by Art-o-Matic, famous for organizing a huge, unjuried art show every year, and Playa del Fuego, a mid-Atlantic "Burning Man" group. Tickets for the fest, which takes place Jan. 20, are $50 at

And last but not least is "Manifest Hope: DC," Jan. 17-19, 2009, an exhibition of 100-plus artists in a cavernous space at 3333 M St. NW in Georgetown. The show is organized by Irvine Contemporary, the 14th Street gallery that exhibited Fairey’s "Hope" before it made its way to the National Portrait Gallery. 

SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and writer based in Washington, D.C.