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It's been two years since the National Portrait Gallery unveiled its official portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama. The gallery says attendance has nearly doubled since then. And now, as NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento reports, the popular paintings are heading out on tour.
ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Every day of the week, people from all over the country line up behind velvet ropes to see Barack Obama's presidential portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. There's a bright spotlight shining on the painting. In it, the former president sits at the edge of a wooden chair. He's surrounded by lush green leaves with pink and white flowers sprinkled across the canvas.
KELLIE HOLMES: It's fantastic and magnetic, and it makes me miss him a lot (laughter).
LYNNE GRANT: It's really, like, mesmerizing to look at.
ANTO SAGAYARAJ: Just all the color. It looks alive, you know what I mean?
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's Kellie Holmes from Charleston, Lynne Grant from Miami and Anto Sagayaraj from Chicago. Upstairs, Michelle Obama's portrait hangs among 20th century figures like Toni Morrison and LL Cool J. The former first lady sits against a pastel blue background wearing a dress with geometric patterns of pink, yellow, black and white.
BARBARA WHITMAN: Remember the famous picture of the little girl standing in front of it?
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's Barbara Whitman (ph) of New York referring to the viral photo of 2-year-old Parker Curry staring up at the portrait in awe.
WHITMAN: And that just made me want to come and see it with my own eyes.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were the first African American artists to be commissioned by the gallery for the official portraits of a former president and first lady. Gallery director Kim Sajet credits their artistic vision for the paintings' popularity.
KIM SAJET: You know, portraiture used to be seen as this old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, like, you know, ready for dead white people kind of way of painting. And it's just not true. And they completely changed that and put it on its head.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That intense interest in the former president and first lady's portraits is why the gallery recently announced the paintings will be going on a yearlong tour starting in June of next year. They'll travel to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston for two months each. Then they'll return to Washington in summer 2022.
Kati Murphy is with the Art Institute of Chicago, which will be the first stop of the tour to coincide with Barack Obama's 60th birthday.
KATI MURPHY: We have such a strong connection to the Obamas. They had their first date at the Art Institute. Michelle Obama used to come to the museum as a kid with her family.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: In Washington, people can come see the paintings for free, so Sajet says the National Portrait Gallery is working with each museum to bring admission fees down.
SAJET: For us, it's all about the access. And, you know, we really want as many people to be able to get the opportunity to see them. And if we can reduce those costs, that would be fantastic.
GOMEZ SARMIENTO: The Obama portraits are not the first to go on tour, but Sajet says there's something unique about the impact they have on visitors to the museum. And next year, people across the country will get the chance to experience that for themselves.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News, Washington.
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