Smithsonian American Art Museum reinstallation underway

The Smithsonian American Art Museum reopens its modern and contemporary galleries September 22, 2023, with a new installation of its permanent collection that freshly examines the explosion of possibility in American art between the 1940s and today. Artists using new materials and techniques—and inspired by the social, cultural and technological changes around them—are featured in “American Voices and Visions: Modern and Contemporary Art.”

This is the initial phase of a multiyear renewal and reinstallation of the museum’s permanent collection galleries slated for overall completion in 2026 in honor of America’s semiquincentennial.

The reopening of the modern and contemporary galleries is the first reinterpretation of its holdings since the museum’s National Historic Landmark building reopened in 2006 after an extensive renovation. The selected works on view highlight established strengths of the museum’s collection, such as its leading collections of work by Black and self-taught artists, while featuring new areas of collection growth since 2006, including post-World War II and contemporary art, time-based media and Latinx art. The installation acknowledges the multifaceted narratives, identities and artistic practices that exist in the United States by including the often-overlooked histories and contributions by Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and women artists, part of a museum-wide effort to provide a more expansive view of American art.

“It would be too simplistic to reduce the development of American art to a linear series of artistic movements since it is a messy, dynamic, ever-evolving history that reflects the American experience through a multitude of perspectives and geographies,” Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said. “As the flagship museum for American art, the reinstallation of our modern and contemporary collection is an important marker in revisiting dominant narratives to illuminate often-overlooked contributions, something that will echo throughout the reinstallation of all our galleries over the coming years.”

The third-floor galleries have been redesigned in collaboration with Selldorf Architects under the leadership of Annabelle Selldorf to create a unified space that highlights the historical architectural elements of the building while offering improved conditions for displaying artworks. The new spaces double the available wall area for installing art and allow for dynamic circulation patterns that reinforce the fluidity between artistic disciplines and historical narratives.

Now, 57% of the works on view are by artists of color and 44% by women, which together reflect a more nuanced and representative survey of American art since 1945.

“American Voices and Visions” brings together more than 100 artworks from the museum’s wide-ranging collection, integrating a range of media and practices from across the museum’s collection areas—including photography, video, craft and work by self-taught artists. The reinstalled galleries feature 42 artworks recently added to the museum’s collection, including works by Firelei Báez, Tiffany Chung, Audrey Flack, Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee), Tseng Kwong Chi, Miguel Luciano, Martha Rosler, Alison Saar, Hank Willis Thomas and Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee Nation) among others—many of which are being shown for the first time—alongside iconic works from the collection by Alexander Calder, Jenny Holzer, Morris Louis, Kerry James Marshall, Nam June Paik, Martin Puryear, Sean Scully, Alma Thomas and Mickalene Thomas.

“With a collection spanning the 18th century through the present, SAAM has a unique opportunity to reexamine 20th- and 21st-century artistic practices across a range of media and within a wider sweep of American history to tell a rich and deep story of art in the United States,” Randall Griffey, head curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, said. “The collection offers opportunities for connection and dialogue—between artists and ideas, between artworks and viewers, and among the artworks themselves. Our hope is that visitors are inspired to engage in this vibrant conversation as they explore our new and refreshed galleries.”

Highlights in the new galleries for modern art:

  • An introduction to abstract expressionism that includes works by well-known figures such as Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and Joan Mitchell as well as the important contributions of underrecognized artists such as Claire Falkenstein and George Morrison (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa) 
  • A tracing of the rise and impact of feminism in the 1970s through artworks by Judith Baca, Audrey Flack, Martha Rosler and Miriam Schapiro 
  • A grouping of painters Melesio Casas, Fritz Scholder, Carlos Villa and Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee Nation) highlights the ways in which artists have drawn on expressionism, pop art and other movements to create work that challenges stereotypes and reflects diverse identities 
  • A selection of artists who experimented with color and form and were based in Washington, D.C., a flourishing center for abstract art in the 1960s and 1970s, including Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas and Anne Truitt. Morris Louis’ majestically scaled “Beta Upsilon” was recently conserved and now returns to public view for the first time in more than 30 years 

Highlights of the contemporary art galleries: 

  • A grouping of works that make use of found materials by artists, including Thornton Dial Sr., Theaster Gates, Louise Nevelson and Alison Saar 
  • The return to public view of Nam Jun Paik’s monumental video installation “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” (1995), an iconic work in the museum’s collection that is complemented by selections from the museum’s Nam June Paik Archive 
  • A presentation of works grounded in political and social activism by Luis Jiménez, Barbara Kruger, Consuelo Jimenez Underwood and AfriCOBRA members Jeff Donaldson and Barbara Jones-Hogu 
  • A new gallery dedicated to photography presents works that challenge representations and misconceptions of identity by Diane Arbus, Tseng Kwong Chi and Ken Ohara, part of an overall curatorial effort to incorporate photography throughout the permanent collection galleries 
  • A grouping of artworks that explore themes of language and communication by artists James Castle, Dan Miller, Judith Scott, George Widener and Jenny Holzer
  • A selection of works that explore notions of national and personal identity by Nick Cave, Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee), Miguel Luciano, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas and Marie Watt (Seneca)  

Dedicated Time-Based Media Gallery 

Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound, approx. 15 x 40 x 4 ft
Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, fifty-one channel video installation (including one closed-circuit television feed), custom electronics, neon lighting, steel and wood; color, sound, approx. 15 x 40 x 4 ft. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 2002.23, © Nam June Paik Estate

The modern and contemporary reinstallation opens concurrently with a new state-of-the-art gallery dedicated to time-based media, also located on the third floor. \Inaugurating the space is “Carrie Mae Weems: Looking Forward, Looking Back,” on view through July 7, 2024. This focused exhibition pairs two newly acquired projects in which Carrie Mae Weems invites others to step back in time: a multimedia installation titled “Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me—A Story in 5 Parts” (2012) and eight photographs from her series “Constructing History” (2008).

Audio Tours From Smartify 

The museum’s education and curatorial staff collaborated on an interpretative approach that emphasizes the individual voices of the artists represented through first-person quotes on the wall labels and a new audio guide available through Smartify that features new and archival audio in which the artists speak to the works on view. Additional tours, created in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery that shares the museum’s historic building, provide insights into the history of the museum’s Greek Revival building and feature highlights of selected works on view.

The public can access these tours online or in gallery using personal devices. Tours will be available in English, Spanish, American Sign Language and Descriptive Audio.

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