Sight Lines

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s reimagined galleries for modern and contemporary art invite visitors to reconsider what American art is and can be.

SAAM-AVV_photo_by_Albert_Ting (Edited)
Sam Gilliam’s draped, suspended canvases hang differently every time they are installed. Swing is placed next to Morris Louis’ Beta Upsilon in one of many new galleries that bring recent acquisitions and museum classics together around themes and ideas such as language and communication, the rise and impact of feminism, and notions of national and personal identity. PHOTO Albert Ting

Melissa Ho remembers the moment she caught her first glimpse of Morris Louis’ Beta Upsilon as it was meant to be seen. “It’s enormous,” she said. “The wonder, the audacity of it—watching it move through the galleries and go up on the wall, experiencing its full majesty, was incredible.”

Beta Upsilon, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) for the first time in 35 years after conservation work, hangs near Swing by Sam Gilliam, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music by Alma Thomas, and Half Light by Mary Pinchot Meyer. Arranged together in a new third-floor gallery, these artworks tell interlocking stories about color abstraction in paintings from the 1960s and 1970s, and about Washington, D.C., artists.

“We have generations of D.C. artists in one space, relating to each other,” said Ho, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art. “This is what SAAM is uniquely positioned to do.”

The museum’s modern and contemporary art galleries reopened to the public this fall, the first phase of American Voices and Visions, an ambitious redesign of museum spaces that presents a more inclusive, wide-ranging story of American art.

What began as an architectural necessity—due to limited space, outdated lighting and challenges associated with the museum’s historic building—became a challenge and an invitation. “The redesign enables curatorial thinking and curatorial imagination,” said head curator Randall Griffey. “It creates opportunities for untold or underappreciated stories in American art to come forward.”

It is also an opportunity to rethink what a national collection can be.

PHOTO Albert Ting

The nearly 100 works on view—including 42 artworks recently added to the collection—showcase the museum’s established strengths and areas of growth since 2006, the last time the collection was re-envisioned. Now, more than half of the works on view are by artists of color. Photography, craft works and self-taught art feature prominently; a brand-new time-based media gallery’s inaugural exhibition explores the work of multimedia artist Carrie Mae Weems.

In redesigned galleries, which include works from 1945 to the present, sight lines connect contemporary artists with previous generations of artists who inspired their work—placing artworks in conversation to draw the visitor in and invite unexpected interpretations of familiar and beloved pieces.

PHOTO Albert Ting

“It would be too simplistic to reduce the development of American art to a linear series of artistic movements,” said Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “It is a messy, dynamic, ever-evolving history that reflects the American experience through a multitude of perspectives and geographies.”

The reopened galleries highlight the richness and depth of American art, and what’s possible at the nation’s flagship American art museum in the future. In the last 10 years, curators dedicated to Latinx art, self-taught art, time-based media, post-World War II and contemporary art have joined the museum; collections now span the 18th through the 21st century.

“We want to create a sense that art can be infinite, can be made by an infinite number of people and represent an infinite number of things,” said Sarah Newman, the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art and deputy head curator. “There are an infinite number of stories that make up the tapestry of American identity.”

Published Fall 2023 in IMPACT Vol. 9. No 3

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