A Peek Into The CIA Art Gallery Reveals [REDACTED] There's a private art gallery at CIA headquarters — who knew? Museum director Toni Hiley says the agency has a young workforce, and the collection of art and artifacts helps them learn from the past.
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A Peek Into The CIA Art Gallery Reveals [REDACTED]

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A Peek Into The CIA Art Gallery Reveals [REDACTED]

A Peek Into The CIA Art Gallery Reveals [REDACTED]

A Peek Into The CIA Art Gallery Reveals [REDACTED]

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/478706463/478804649" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A Contingency for Every Action is the latest commissioned work for the CIA's art collection. It depicts artifacts from more than a half century of agency operations, some of which are still classified. Courtesy of CIA hide caption

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Courtesy of CIA

A new oil painting has just arrived in what may be the world's most clandestine art gallery — the fine arts collection at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.

This commissioned work isn't your typical still life; the tableau is a busy clutter of gear — photos, blueprints, weapons and ammunition.

CIA museum director Toni Hiley says this painting — the 21st in the collection — is purposely complex. A Contingency for Every Action shows artifacts from major covert actions going back to World War II. "It's what we call an Easter egg painting," Hiley says. She calls it an "Easter egg" because nestled within are little hints from missions that are still classified.

Unless you're a CIA officer, you'll probably never get to see the painting in person. Which might make you wonder: Why does the CIA have an art gallery at all?

ARGO — The Rescue of the Canadian Six was painted by an undercover CIA employee. It depicts an operation in which six Americans ("The Canadian Six") were rescued after the U.S. embassy in Tehran was taken over in 1979. Courtesy of CIA hide caption

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Courtesy of CIA

ARGO — The Rescue of the Canadian Six was painted by an undercover CIA employee. It depicts an operation in which six Americans ("The Canadian Six") were rescued after the U.S. embassy in Tehran was taken over in 1979.

Courtesy of CIA

The CIA's mission "is to go where others cannot go," Hiley tells NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. The museum's collection (which you can browse here) is full of equipment, clothing and correspondence that go all the way back to the CIA's predecessor, the OSS. But the museum can't always rely on artifacts to tell the full story. "We don't always have artifacts to act as the portal to get us to that particular part of our history," Hiley explains.

Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir depicts Virginia Hall, a 35-year-old woman from Baltimore, who was recruited to work in Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive (SOE) to fight the Nazis during World War II. Courtesy of CIA hide caption

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Courtesy of CIA

Les Marguerites Fleuriront ce Soir depicts Virginia Hall, a 35-year-old woman from Baltimore, who was recruited to work in Winston Churchill's Special Operations Executive (SOE) to fight the Nazis during World War II.

Courtesy of CIA

Instead, the museum commissions historical paintings that help ensure that new CIA employees have an opportunity to learn about the past. "Our workforce is a young workforce," Hiley explains. "Fifty-two percent of our officers have joined since 9/11, and it's absolutely critical that they understand where we've come from as an agency so they can lead us to where we will go."

Some of the paintings recall dark times in CIA history. One work pays tribute to four B26 pilots who lost their lives in the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion. Hiley says it's possible to find pride even in failed operations. "We're proud of the four pilots we lost, we're proud that we did what the president asked us to do," she says. " ... Part of our pride is acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them."

Hiley hasn't commissioned a painting on Iraq yet, but she says "we've done a strategic plan on the collection, and we're very busy trying to fill in gaps."

Cast of a Few, Courage of a Nation by James Dietz depicts early CIA operations in Afghanistan just after the Sept. 11 attacks. Courtesy of CIA hide caption

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Courtesy of CIA

Want to see more? You can browse through more CIA art and artifacts here.