At HUD, It's 'Portrait Portrait On The Wall'

Sure, the nation's housing industry is in free-fall from the subprime mortgage crisis. And the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development could be facing significant cuts. And the agency is still struggling to respond to a slew of natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina.

But hey, that's not stopping HUD Secretary and Man About Town Alphonso Jackson from tackling another high priority: getting his official portrait painted - and pronto, on the double.

The agency has awarded what it says is a $100,000 contract to an artist in the New York area to complete Jackson's portrait and those of the four most recent past HUD secretaries - Jack Kemp, Henry Cisneros, Andrew Cuomo and Mel Martinez - all in about eight weeks time. The due date for all five portraits, which has already slipped once, is now Oct. 15.

Alphonso Jackson, speaking at the National Press Club

How will one mortal artist possibly meet the deadline? "By never leaving my studio," jokes the lucky winner of the HUD portrait sweepstakes contract, artist Daniel Mark Duffy.

Speaking to us between strokes from his studio in Newtown, Conn., Duffy said department officials gave him no indication of why they want the portraits completed so quickly. They just sent him official HUD photos of all five subjects and basically told him to get painting! Asked what he thought of the unusually tight deadline, he said, "It's extreme."

Typically, he said, it takes him "at least a month" or about 100 hours of studio time to paint a portrait from a photograph. Of course, he'd rather the HUD secretaries had sat for their portraits so "we could have had a fully realized interaction." Alas, time is of the essence.

According to the schedule put forth in the contract solicitation, a copy of which was obtained by the Sleuth, the initial sketch of each portrait was due "no later than three weeks after award date." HUD will then "endeavor to complete review and approval within five calendar days." The completed portraits are due "no later than three weeks after initial sketch approval." If those are approved, then the final framed portraits are due to the HUD program office "no later than seven days after approval."

Needless to say, Duffy is painting as fast as he can. "I've already finished Cuomo and Cisneros," the artist said (nearly panting). "I'm painting Jackson at the moment." Kemp is next.

The only foreseeable challenge he sees are the wet surfaces of the paintings. This is oil after all, he says, "and oil paintings don't ever fully dry." Therefore, Duffy will drive the portraits down to Washington himself rather than shipping them.

HUD spokesman Jerry Brown says Secretary Jackson's portrait will be hung on the wall of the new auditorium at HUD, which is under construction, after he leaves office "which he has no plans to do" before the end of the Bush administration.

According to Brown, the last HUD secretary to have an official portrait painted and hung at the agency was Samuel "Silent Sam" Pierce, whose eight-year tenure in the Reagan administration triggered a behemoth independent counsel investigation into widespread corruption at HUD - focusing on charges that the agency under Pierce's stewardship played political favoritism in awarding contracts.

Let's hope for Jackson's sake that reinstating the portrait tradition isn't an omen - Jackson came under fire last year for admitting that he urged staff to favor political pals of President Bush when awarding HUD contracts.

Duffy, who says he is a political independent, said he had "no idea" how he was awarded his $100,000 contract.

By Mary Ann Akers |  September 17, 2007; 3:30 PM ET
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