Above the National Gallery of Art, security guards get the lead out.
Just inside the Mall entrance of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, a gallery leaflet directs you left to Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and right to the impressionists. But to find one of the gallery’s more obscure rooms, consult the right index finger of Righetti’s Mercury, the 18th-century bronze just ahead of you. It’s pointing straight upward, somewhere above the central rotunda, in the
direction of the gallery’s very own firing range.
“It’s been there for decades, as long as anyone can remember,” says Deborah Ziska, a gallery spokesperson. “I don’t know if [the range] has been there from the very beginning, but it’s been there most of the history of the gallery.” The West Building, designed by archclassicist architect John Russell Pope, was completed in 1941.
Among the gallery’s security staff are an undisclosed number of armed officers who use the range to keep current with their law-enforcement certification. And until a few years ago, Ziska says, security staff from other places—she won’t say which ones—occasionally used the range, too. “We considered closing it down,” says Ziska, “but found it more cost-effective to keep it open here for our own staff.”
(A spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution says that its own guards use the National Gallery’s range when the weather’s bad but usually go to Maryland’s Fort Meade.)
Ziska, citing security concerns, is wary about offering details of the range. Manned by a “certified shooting-range officer,” it is small, soundproofed, absent of any artwork, and “far away from the public.” “You would never have any idea that it was here if you were here,” she says. She denied a reporter’s request to visit the secret chamber.
Gallery guards are looser with information. “It’s way, waaay up there. You have to go up at least four floors,” says one. Another guard says the range is above the central rotunda and estimates it to be about double the size of one of the smaller rooms on the main floor. That’s about half the size of a basketball court.
That security officers are working on their shoot-to-kill skills in one of the nation’s most treasured museums is something the gallery has never publicized. Ziska says that, like most art institutions, the gallery likes to be discreet about what goes on behind the scenes. Even Connecticut-based architectural historian Steven Bedford, who authored a 1998 study of Pope’s work, says he had no idea the firing range existed. Bedford has combed through Pope’s papers and the thousands of design documents produced up to and immediately after 1937, the year Pope died.
“I can tell you it wasn’t in the original drawings,” Bedford says. “If it was put there after ’41, I wouldn’t know about it. No one brought it up when we did the
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50th anniversary celebration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was there for the Secret Service or some sort of World War II thing.” He says there is “plenty of room” in the empty space above the galleries and below the building’s roof for a range. The chief of the gallery’s archives, Maygene Daniels, says she’s never seen the range identified on gallery plans and that there are no photos of it in the archives’ files.
For Bedford, the in-house range exemplifies the gallery’s haughty sense of autonomy.
“They just want to do everything themselves,” he says. “They’re part of the Smithsonian, but they’re not. They’re a semi-independent entity that tends to do everything their way, for lack of a better description.” CP