Amsel's portrait of Bette Midler was in the running for Smithsonian's "Recognize wall&q


The National Portrait Gallery pulled three images from its vast collection last month and asked the Internet to pick the one to hang in a prominent space.

The ballot gave biographical information about the choices — artist Georgia O’Keeffe, civil rights activist James Meredith and singer Bette Midler — but it raised a baffling question: Why these three seemingly disparate images? What was the connection?

The answer might surprise you.

But first, the winner was Arnold Newman’s photograph of O’Keeffe, which received 43 percent of the 3,829 votes cast, according to the museum. Meredith came in a distant second with 30 percent, and Midler third.As a result, the photograph of O’Keeffe has been placed on the museum’s Recognize wall — off the gallery’s G Street lobby — which is the space it uses to react to public events. It’s where a portrait of Robin Williams was displayed after the comedian’s death, for example, and where an image of Katy Perry was featured when she performed at the nearby Verizon Center this summer.

Museum officials declared the crowdsourcing project a success, and they have plans for a second vote early next year. Balloting lasted only two weeks because “the Internet doesn’t have a long attention span,” program manager Allison Jessing said. “We wanted that sense of urgency.”

And the voting happened only online, as a way to avoid ballot stuffing in the gallery and to engage audiences beyond the museum walls.

But why these three? Jessing said they couldn’t just open the vault and bring out any image they wanted — it is a museum after all, with often-controlling curators and conservators at the ready with a lusty “no.” So a small committee started with eight or 10 pieces that were “conservation-ready and display-ready” and pared them down to these three.

The connective tissue is Kleenex thin: Each had an anniversary during the time of the project, although none is a milestone. O’Keeffe’s 127th birthday would have been Nov. 15 (she was born in 1887) and Midler turns 69 on Dec. 1. Meredith became the first African American student at the University of Mississippi — a significant event in the civil rights movement — on Oct. 1, 1962, 52 years ago.

Ian Cooke, who manages the program with Jessing, said the head-scratching is welcome.“One of the things we hope to do is showcase the breadth of our collection,” he said. Cooke and Jessing are already researching the next group of choices to present to audiences next year.

“One of the things we’re excited about, that’s baked into what we do, is we are in a two-way relationship and we want to hear back from” visitors, Cooke said. “We want to expand the conversation.”

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