As the nation’s preeminent institution dedicated to American culture and the study of American art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) bears a unique curatorial responsibility to capture the expansive and multifaceted nature of the nation’s culture. in his exhibitions. During a complex and often charged period of United States history marked by social and political upheaval accompanied by changing perspectives, a conscious approach to growing a museum’s collection is one way most visible to tell important stories.
That’s the impetus behind a recent acquisition drive coinciding with the 50th anniversary in 2022 of the Renwick Gallery from SAAM, America’s premier national center for craftsmanship. Officially launched in 2020, the acquisition program has brought over 200 objects into the SAAM’s permanent collection, dramatically increasing the number of Black, Latino, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous and women artists represented in SAAM’s collections. museum.
“When it comes to expanding the museum’s collection, our priority is to break down barriers further,” says Nora Atkinson, curator in charge of Fleur and Charles Bresler for Renwick Gallery, who chaired the campaign. “At 50, we have an opportunity to look back on our history, see where we have succeeded and failed, and recalibrate as we embark on the next 50 years. Including people of all genders, sexualities, ethnicities and abilities in our collection and by examining all forms of craft practice with genuine curiosity, we are building a national collection that presents a multiplicity of perspectives and experiences.
The Renwick Gallery acquisition campaign is part of a larger SAAM initiative that has so far brought many significant works from a broadly representative and diverse group of American artists in all media, from painting and from sculpture to temporal media, photographs, self-taught art and contemporary crafts. These notable works include Orilla Verde at the Rio Grande (2012), one of three paintings by the Cherokee artist Kay walking stick; Ana Mendietaiconic 1973 short blood sweat; and multimedia installation Lincoln, Lonnie and I – A 5 part story (2012), the first work of 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellow Carrie Mae Weems to enter SAAM’s holdings.
Recent acquisitions similarly fill the chronological span of its existing collection. A landmark bequest from collector Larry J. West in 2021 introduced a wealth of vintage photographs dating from the 1840s to 1920s, including work by pioneering African-American daguerreotypists James P.Ball, Glenalvin Goodridgeand Augustus Washington. Anchored to the opposite by contemporary entries such as Arthur Jaffa2016 short film Love is the message, the message is deaththe museum’s collection features depictions of black Americans by black artists nearly two centuries apart.
A new wave of landmark works by David Harper Clemons, Karen LaMonte, Sharon Kerry-Harlan, and more will be unveiled in “This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World.” The exhibition, which opens May 13 and runs through April 2, 2023 at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, demonstrates the extent of new craftsmanship in the museum’s permanent collection, with approximately 135 of the 170 works exposed never seen before. on this site.
There is an undeniable political filiation that binds the works in the exhibition, which takes its title from This present moment (2019-2020), a sculpture by a Texas artist Alicia Eggert. The striking billboard quotes a line from a book by futurist Stewart Brand (“This present moment / Used to be / The unimaginable future”), displaying the text in pink neon – a nod to the #MeToo movement .
Indeed, the present moment is at the center of attention here, and many of these seminal works date from the last decade. The exhibition notably inaugurates a new piece by the quiltmaker Bisa Butler, which weaves vibrant threads into captivating life-size portraits of black Americans. the butler Harlem Hell Fighters (2021-2022) brings to life a distinct unit of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. The soldiers are represented in a patchwork of cotton, silk, wool and velvet on a quilted background. In typical Butler fashion, their eyes are directed at the viewer; the intensity of their gaze, coupled with the electrifying colors and sumptuous materiality of their clothing, imbues Butler’s subjects with a realistic immediacy.
The exhibition also highlights the iterative nature of fine craftsmanship in works that refract traditional elements through the prism of modernity. Bold extrapolation of form is the calling card of the Philadelphia-born ceramist Roberto Lugo, which embellishes luxury porcelain objects with the sensitivity of a graffiti artist to comment on social issues. His work 2021 Juicy intricately adorns a stoneware vase with likenesses of hip-hop icons and bright colors evoking her family’s Puerto Rican origins.
Other pieces signify an extension of this tradition. glass artist Preston single creates elegant sculptures that are inspired by the iconography of his Tlingit heritage. Have a good trip (2021) is from his series of “Spirit Boxes”, based on traditional storage boxes used by indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest.
One of SAAM’s biggest new additions is also one of its most timely. Sonya Clarkit is Monumental (2019) was inspired by a discovery she made in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution in 2011, when the celebrated fiber artist was conducting research as a Smithsonian Artist Residence Fellow. The object was a white tea towel, which was waved to announce the surrender of the Confederate army in 1865 at the Appomattox courthouse.
Clark’s own piece, woven from linen using traditional methods, recreates its unassuming source material on a grand scale. The title both hints at the full scope of the work and connects to ongoing conversations about racial justice and the importance of historical symbols amid a national reckoning over Confederate statues.
Monumental is arguably the centerpiece of “This Present Moment,” not least because its message succinctly distills the thesis of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s recent acquisition efforts. Located just blocks from the National Mall and the White House, SAAM Galleries shares psychic real estate with some of America’s most ideologically significant sites. This proximity raises a question: if it is true that monuments are above all signifiers of history, are they not also permanent testimonies of shared values?
Unlike fixed monuments, however, an art museum has the ability to evolve its values based on the conservation of its contents. The expansion of SAAM’s collection to include pieces as bold and varied as these underscores the museum’s commitment to both championing important works by American artists and offering a nuanced insight into the plurality of art. American experience.
“This Present Moment: Creating a Better World” opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery on May 13, 2022. Visit the museum website for more information on SAAM’s recent acquisitions.