Why won't the CIA reveal what's in its art collection?

Published 5th February 2016
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Why won't the CIA reveal what's in its art collection?
Written by Matthew Ponsford, CNN
The CIA's fortress headquarters in Langley, Virginia is home to more than few surprises, like a branch of Starbucks where the baristas definitely don't ask names, and a museum of spying you'll never set foot in.
And those are just the details they're authorized to talk about.
Langley is the nerve center of an espionage empire with a budget in the billions. Its classified headcount of intelligence operatives are tasked with, among other things, sabotaging ISIS and waging cyber warfare -- so it is understandable that the agency is a little tight-lipped.
But few know that the HQ's halls play host to one of the world's most enigmatic art galleries.
Among its collection of military- and espionage-themed artworks (think soft-focus scenes of jets soaring over foreign lands), the CIA has a cache of 29 abstract paintings -- pictures the agency says are used in the training of intelligence analysts. The CIA list these as valuable works belonging to a semi-obscure mid-20th century school of Washington-based artists, but the identities of many of the artworks remain unknown.
Oregon-based artist Joby Barron has spent seven years asking why the CIA is so averse to telling all about the paintings that line its walls. During her investigation, she says the agency hasn't sent a single image that would allow her to identify the paintings.
"My interest in the project began in 2008," explains 42-year-old Barron by email. "I came across a Taryn Simon photograph from her series 'American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.' The photo was of two abstract paintings in the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. I was instantly intrigued -- why did the CIA have these pieces? I wondered what other art they might have and if it was available to the public."
Today, she can tell you this: in 1968, racehorse-breeding playboy art collector named Vincent Melzac -- best remembered now for a once-notorious gallery fistfight, rather than his connoisseurship of the arts — held secret talks with agency administrators about loaning his collection.
Melzac was the wealthy proprietor of a string of beauty schools and, by the late 60s, owned what was arguably the most important private collection of works by the "Washington Color School" group. These blocky, geometric, sometimes corporate logo-like works -- including pieces by noteworthy American artists Gene Davis, Norman Bluhm, and Robert W. Newmann -- have been in the agency's collection for almost 50 years.
Barron was soon playing counterspy -- "one who was being extremely obvious," she says -- attempting to make breakthroughs from breadcrumbs of information.
She learned from a lawyer she met at a party that she could submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the agency would be compelled to share information about their art collection.
But it wouldn't be that simple:
"It seems to be some kind of cat-and-mouse game, as most often I was informed by the CIA that my queries are not requesting government records per se or were too broad or vague and do not satisfy the requirements of a FOIA request and for these reasons, records of art at the CIA or for a list of the paintings and photographs of the Melzac Collection have been denied," she says.
Oregonian artist Joby Barron has been searching for answers for 7 years
Oregonian artist Joby Barron has been searching for answers for 7 years Credit: James Rexroad/courtesy joby barron
In 2014, she eventually received almost 100 pages of partially redacted information, giving details from the agency's first meeting with Melzac, and obscuring others, sometimes whole pages.
Barron has still not received a complete list of the artworks held. She says her main concern remains why a government agency, which acknowledges that it is in possession of the Melzac collection, has a "knee-jerk" reaction to keep this seemingly innocuous information from the public.
"These paintings are valuable, museum quality, and part of our national treasure," says Barron, "paid for with public funds (I assume) and, as a citizen, I was denied access to them."
The CIA says it is proud to own the collection and acknowledges that it is considered among the most important modern art collections owned by the U.S. government. CIA media spokesman Glenn Miller says 11 paintings were purchased by the agency from Melzac in 1987, but does not give any further details on the acquisition.
Miller says the paintings have been on view: That thousands of workers at the agency, plus their families, and official visitors have seen the works over the last half century.
Barron says she doesn't believe the agency is being intentionally evasive but asks why she has found it so difficult to catch a glimpse of the pictures.
She was miffed to be told by an agency spokesperson that to find out more information, she could watch the Ben Affleck-directed Hollywood blockbuster "Argo," or a handful of other films that have been shot in the HQ, only to catch scarcely a few seconds' view of the collection. The agency's rare public visiting opportunities are also off-limits for Barron, who lives almost 3,000 miles away in Oregon.
Now, Barron's quest to find the truth about the paintings that line the hallways of the secretive agency has become the highlight of a group exhibition called "Chasing Justice" at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, where she hopes to re-imagine the elusive artworks owned by the CIA.
CNN caught up with the artist to find out more...
CNN: Tell us (everything you can) about Acres of Walls
Joby Barron: Acres of Walls is a reconstruction in 3/4 scale of artwork from the Melzac collection. The paintings I have recreated are shown alongside various correspondences and FOIA requests that were part of my attempt to uncover exactly what artwork is being held by the CIA.
I don't believe that the CIA are intentionally being evasive for the sake of national security, or any other great conspiracy. But it does feel somewhat purposefully difficult to utilize the FOIA to acquire specifics about a collection of art confirmed by their own website as actively hanging in their hallways.
Why are you so interested in discovering what's in there?
Initially, I was curious as to why the CIA would have an interest in abstract art. After my first attempts to uncover exactly what was in the collection were denied, I started to wonder why this particular information wasn't being made available.
The repeated denials fueled my curiosity. I was able to get general information about Melzac and information about the early collection, but they would not release a current list of held works or any images of the paintings.
Finding a clue or an image of a painting that I suspected was still in the collection was exciting. My interest in the FOIA process developed alongside my interest in the collection, and I started to think of them as intertwined -- the art contrasted against this tool for extracting information from government.
Does art matter to the CIA?
During the Cold War the CIA covertly supported contemporary painters, musicians, and writers, among others, as part of the Cultural Cold War. The effect of this spy craft on the trajectory of the art world was intriguing to me.
Melzac was awarded a CIA Agency Seal Medallion for the donation. Additionally, I have strong reason to suspect he was able to use the donation as a tax shelter for the value of the work. [The CIA did not comment on this suggestion.] As the ex-CEO of Corcoran Gallery and the primary collector of Washington Color School painters, Melzac may have assessed the value of the art he donated. There are still many unanswered questions.
Is the process -- and frustration -- of trying to find out more on show, too?
After numerous requests, I was sent about 100 pages of partially redacted documents from the CIA. A couple pages were entirely denied. The documents detailed initial meetings with Melzac, an incomplete list of the historical Melzac collection, which also had some information about artists and the titles of works, but no images. At an initial showing of the project in Portland, OR, [at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center] I included all the documents I had accumulated and put them on a desk in the middle of the gallery. Visitors could look through these papers, letters and research.
The agency hasn't made life easy for you. Did you think about giving up?
I never considered giving up, rather the opposite: each refusal energized me to understand more about the collection. Uncovering small bits of information was exciting. However, I did not think that it would be such a long process.
Do you feel you've learned a lot about this school of painting and the donor who collected it?
This collection is part of a complicated story that originates in the Cold War. One of the painters who has a piece in the collection, Robert W. Newmann, recently sent an image of his painting, "Arrows", so that I may include it in the exhibition. Newmann also knew Melzac and shared valuable insights into the history of the art scene they both were involved in.
Were you attempting to recreate the artworks faithfully?
I tried to paint them as faithfully as possible in 3/4 scale based on the limited information that I had at the time and not always using the same techniques. In one instance, when I found a piece in a photograph of the Langley headquarters I was able to roughly deduce the size of the canvas by estimating the size of the floor tiles in the hallway. Norman Bluhm's painting "Inside Orange" had to be recreated like a paint-by-numbers to be accurate.
What have you learned?
I have come to understand that the FOIA is a really important tool for journalists and citizens to protect and defend.
Do you ever wonder what else might still lie in CIA's collection that is too secretive for public view? Unknown works of genius? Alien sculptures?
I am not sure about alien art collections at the CIA, but I am reminded of  the last scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." After everything that happens, the Ark is just filed away among an endless expanse of anonymous boxes in a dusty warehouse somewhere.
Do you still hold hope that you'll one day find out?
Yes, though a large part of this project was to test the FOIA, I would like to visit the paintings in person. I would also be happy to create a photographic catalog for the CIA so images could be seen outside the agency, if they don't have that information.