February 18, 2019 10:07 pm
Updated: February 19, 2019 11:22 pm

‘Obama effect’ doubles visitors to Washington, D.C. portrait gallery

WATCH: Portrait's popularity confirms Obama's enduring appeal


While visiting Washington, D.C. from Seattle, Danté DiSabatino came to see the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. And they moved him to tears.

“Coming to see that portrait meant a lot to me because — sorry,” he tells Global News as he pauses, getting choked up.

READ MORE: Obama portraits unveiled at Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (Feb. 12, 2018)

Staring at the portrait of the last president sitting in a chair nestled in greenery, DiSabatino is reminded of when he met the man in person. It was in Florida in 2012 at the beginning of Obama’s second presidential campaign.

“I got to shake his hand. I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘You and your wife have been an inspiration for me to move forward, as a gay man, a cancer survivor and a young American, really,’” DiSabatino said.

He is one of more than 2.3 million people who have taken in the Obama portraits since they were unveiled in February 2018 — doubling the museum’s attendance.

More than 2.3 million people have taken in the Obama portraits since they were unveiled in February 2018. (Abigail Bimman/Global News)

Abigail Bimman/Global News

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Willy Byrd hugged his wife after they saw the portraits, thanking her for making the trip with him from Las Vegas.

“It’s one of those…bucket list things you want to do and so it’s the only reason we came to the building,” he said. “It means a lot, especially during Black History Month, to celebrate Black History Month.”

“It’s so modern, and it has a lot of pop art elements, everyone wants to see a new kind of portrait,” said Moona Jewayni. She and her husband brought their four-year-old son Sufiyan to see President Obama, as he’s studying presidents at school. (He told Global News he liked the portrait because the president has an airplane.)

WATCH: Barack and Michelle Obama’s official portraits unveiled at the Smithsonian

According to the gallery’s director, Jewayni and Byrd both hit on elements of the portraits’ popularity. Kim Sajed calls the visitor explosion the “Obama effect.”

In a piece in The Atlantic looking back at the past year’s business, Sajed writes the gallery historically has been “pale and male.”

(The “America’s Presidents” exhibit has been part of the larger gallery for half a century, showcasing all of America’s Commanders-in-Chief.)

“Portraiture favoured those who could vote — white men who owned land,” Sajet told Global News.

“So, perhaps no surprise to the ladies, less than 23 per cent of our collection are women. And when it gets to people of colour, the statistics are even lower.”

READ MORE: Michelle Obama makes surprise appearance at Grammy Awards, gets standing ovation

While the Obama portraits have been in the spotlight, Sajet says the gallery is making other changes and additions, “to really have a conversation right now in the moment about identity politics.”

Crowds have come to take in the Obama portraits and, of course, take selfies. A two-year-old transfixed by the former first lady went beyond viral — Parker Curry ended up on Ellen and got to dance with the first lady herself.

The Obama portraits are the only ones in the gallery to have their own security guards. The gallery says it is simply about crowd control and there haven’t been any threats to the portrait from Trump supporters or otherwise.

But for some visitors taking in the art, it’s natural to reflect on politics.

WATCH: Michelle Obama dances with awestruck 2-year-old fan captured in viral photo (March 2018)

“[Obama] faced a lot of difficult issues and couldn’t win on everything, but I think he did restore — for the time he was in office — a sense of pride,” said Kristie Hennig, visiting from Minnesota.

“I felt proud to be an American during those years. I feel differently now.”

Hennig says she travels abroad frequently, and during the Obama years, “we were likeable again” overseas. Under the Trump administration, she feels embarrassed.

“I think this painting reminds us of what we had and what we could be again. To me, anyway,” Hennig tells Global News.

WATCH: Barack Obama, Steph Curry and John Legend kick off Obama Foundation’s MBK Rising!

As for Danté DiSabatino, his cancer has been in remission for nearly seven years. Diagnosed at age 19, he has come a long way from when he first met President Obama, post-chemotherapy treatments, with no hair. But he still needed to come to D.C. and take in the portrait of the president who inspires him to be reminded about the power of moving forward.

“Seeing a man looking forward,” he says about the portrait. “Still looking forward, despite where we are, where we’re going — still moving forward.”

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