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Whistler's global reach: Art travels from the walls of the Lowell museum to the U.S. embassy in Madrid

By Sara Bogosian
Special to The Sun
May 30, 2016
More images online at The Lowell Sun

I have traveled to Spain numerous times before, but who would think I'd be returning because of my work at the Whistler House Museum of Art, representing Lowell. Recently, I was the guest of the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra, James Costos, born to Greek parents from the Highlands of Lowell. Located in the heart of Madrid, the embassy was built in the 1970s and is a modern, fortified edifice. Surrounded by lush gardens and security, it elegantly overlooks the city.

UsEmbassy Spain

Entering the foyer of the official residence was like stepping into a museum, yet it had a charm that showed a designer's touch. I was surrounded by valuable works of art by artists such as Lichtenstein, Sargent, Rauschenberg, Ford, Albers, Saura, Schnabel and sculptures by contemporary artists Glenn Ligon and Juan Munoz. My beautifully appointed suite was one I recognized because it had been featured in a spread in Architectural Digest magazine in September of 2015.

In the U.S., when a diplomat takes possession of his official residence, he has the right to choose about 40 works of art from a common State Department fund known as the Art in Embassies program. In the case of Costos, he and his partner of 16 years, award-winning interior designer Michael Smith, have nearly 90 works, many obtained through their own personal connections. Smith is well known for his design of the private quarters of the White House.

There are no funds allotted for interior design of U.S. embassies in foreign countries, so this dynamic duo decided to fund the redesign themselves as a legacy they will leave to the residence and embassy for future generations.

The Whistler House became involved in the program, lending Costos six of our valued Whistler etchings which beautifully grace his embassy office.

"In my office, I have a number of etchings by Whistler, a painter born in the same town as I in Lowell, Massachusetts, that every morning reminds me that I come from a very humble family (Greek), and now I've become Ambassador of the United States. You never know how your future will be written," states Costos.

The official dog of the residence is Greco, named after the famous Spanish artist El Greco and the Ambassador's Greek heritage. Greco greeted me as if we had known each other for years. Confident yet calm, Greco was rescued at a dog shelter in Galicia, along with a darling timid and shy, dark curly-haired water dog they named Whistler. Whistler? The Ambassador was a frequent visitor to the Whistler House as a child and Whistler has made a lasting impression to this day. He showed great interest in the artist, which was evident by all of the books he had on display in his private suite, residence and office.

Engaging, warm and confident, one could see why this ambassador is diplomatically charming his way through this interesting assignment. It's possible to say that the ambassador has become one of the most popular and sought-after diplomats America has to offer. What is his secret?

"There are no magic words," says Costos. "What's important is to appreciate the differing points of view of other people, focus on what unites us, not what divides us and, above all, have a lot of patience."

Other guests who I met one evening at the embassy were U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pratt and his wife Mary. Ukraine Ambassador to Spain, Serhii Pokoreltsev and his wife Svetlana, and the Ambassador's Chief of Staff, Zac Portillo and his partner Freddie Rodriguez.

SpainTrip Dinner

Costos met with me several times throughout my visit, to chat and show me around the embassy. He's so proud of what he has accomplished, and rightfully so. A graduate of UMass Lowell, Lowell High and the Greater Lowell Regional Technical High School, he was most interested in hearing all about Lowell and the many friends (who call him "Jimmy") who we had in common.

I gave him the gifts I had brought with me from Lowell -- a Janet Lambert Moore painting of the Whistler House; the book Christmas in American Landmark Homes, featuring the Whistler House; a variety of chocolates from Mrs. Nelson's candy shop in Chelmsford; and a few other Whistler trinkets.

The ambassador arranged visits for me with key individuals of some of the top museums in the world, in particular with Sr. Miguel Zugaza Miranda from the Museo Nacional del Prado. Zugaza was most gracious and very interested in Whistler, the Whistler House, and Lowell.

It was a delightful trip, a once in a lifetime experience that I will cherish and never forget. The Ambassador plans to visit here next year after his ambassadorship in Spain is completed in January of 2017. In the meantime, he will continue to build our relationships with Spain and other foreign countries throughout the world.

Sara M. Bogosian is the President and Executive Director at the Whistler House Museum of Art in Lowell.

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