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This morning, the National Gallery of Art re-installs Paul Gauguin’s painting “Two Tahitian Women.”  Last Friday, Susan Burns, 53, of Alexandria, Virginia, attacked the painting, screaming it was evil, pornographic, and homosexual in nature.  Burns was arrested and the painting was examined on Monday.  It suffered no damages.

Like many Washingtonians, when I heard about last Friday’s attack, I was shocked.  I had just visited the National Gallery of Art on Sunday evening to watch a film by French filmmaker Eric Rohmer who died last year.  The film viewing was free and open to the public just like all exhibits at the Gallery which adds to the disturbing possibilities people like Burns can cause.

Part of the value of the National Gallery of Art is the accessibility it offers to its visitors.  People literally walk in off the streets.  Guards gently search your bags and wave you in.  There are no metal detectors, just the expectation that you will be respectful and courteous and not touch the priceless pieces.  You are also allowed to take pictures (of the standard exhibit) which is usually unheard of.  All of this puts the pieces in the Gallery at risk, but it also calls on each of us to be vigilant.

A remarkable part of the story that has gotten little notice is that one of the Gallery’s visitors helped to tackle Burns away from the painting.  He is described as a social worker from the Bronx.  That a New Yorker should save the painting is serendipitous, as the painting is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  This man reminds us that our national treasures are our national responsibilities, and we should all do what we can to protect them.

The Gauguin exhibit “Gauguin: Maker of Myth” ends June 5, 2011.

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