Smithsonian American Art Museum

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Smithsonian American Art Museum
Modern and Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.jpg
Lincoln Gallery
Location map Washington, D.C. central.png
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Location in Washington, D.C.
Established1829 [1]
Location8th & F Streets NW, Washington, D.C. [2]
Coordinates 38°53′52″N77°01′24″W / 38.89778°N 77.02333°W / 38.89778; -77.02333 Coordinates: 38°53′52″N77°01′24″W / 38.89778°N 77.02333°W / 38.89778; -77.02333
Type Art museum, Design/Textile Museum, Heritage Museum [3]
Visitors1.2 million (2013) [4]
Director Stephanie Stebich (as of April 2017) [5] [6] [7] [8]
CuratorVirginia M. Mecklenburg [9]
Abraham Thomas
Nora Atkinson
Saisha Grayson
Melissa Ho
Eleanor Jones Harvey
John P. Jacob
Karen Lemmey
Crawford Alexander Mann III
Joanna Marsh
Sarah Newman
E. Carmen Ramos
William Truettner
Leslie Umberger
Public transit access WMATA Metro Logo.svg WMATA Red.svg WMATA Yellow.svg WMATA Green.svg Gallery Place-Chinatown

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (commonly known as SAAM, and formerly the National Museum of American Art) is a museum in Washington, D.C., part of the Smithsonian Institution. Together with its branch museum, the Renwick Gallery, SAAM holds one of the world's largest and most inclusive collections of art, from the colonial period to the present, made in the United States. The museum has more than 7,000 artists represented in the collection. Most exhibitions take place in the museum's main building, the old Patent Office Building (shared with the National Portrait Gallery), while craft-focused exhibitions are shown in the Renwick Gallery.

Washington, D.C. Capital of the United States

Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington or D.C., is the capital of the United States. Founded after the American Revolution as the seat of government of the newly independent country, Washington was named after George Washington, the first president of the United States and a Founding Father. As the seat of the United States federal government and several international organizations, Washington is an important world political capital. The city is also one of the most visited cities in the world, with more than 20 million tourists annually.

Smithsonian Institution Group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government

The Smithsonian Institution, also known simply as the Smithsonian, is a group of museums and research centers administered by the Government of the United States. It was founded on August 10, 1846, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge". The institution is named after its founding donor, British scientist James Smithson. It was originally organized as the "United States National Museum", but that name ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967.

Renwick Gallery art museum in Washington, D.C.

The Renwick Gallery is a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, located in Washington, D.C., and focuses on American craft and decorative arts from the 19th to the 21st century. It is housed in a National Historic Landmark building that was begun in 1859 on Pennsylvania Avenue and originally housed the Corcoran Gallery of Art. When it was built in 1859, it was known as "the American Louvre".


The museum provides electronic resources to schools and the public through its national education program. It maintains seven online research databases with more than 500,000 records, including the Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture that document more than 400,000 artworks in public and private collections worldwide. Since 1951, the museum has maintained a traveling exhibition program; as of 2013, more than 2.5 million visitors have seen the exhibitions.


The Smithsonian American Art Museum has had many names over the years—Smithsonian Art Collection, National Gallery of Art (not to be confused with the current National Gallery of Art), National Collection of Fine Arts, and National Museum of American Art. [10] The museum adopted its current name in October 2000. [11]

National Gallery of Art national art museum in Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art, and its attached Sculpture Garden, is a national art museum in Washington, D.C., located on the National Mall, between 3rd and 9th Streets, at Constitution Avenue NW. Open to the public and free of charge, the museum was privately established in 1937 for the American people by a joint resolution of the United States Congress. Andrew W. Mellon donated a substantial art collection and funds for construction. The core collection includes major works of art donated by Paul Mellon, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Lessing J. Rosenwald, Samuel Henry Kress, Rush Harrison Kress, Peter Arrell Browne Widener, Joseph E. Widener, and Chester Dale. The Gallery's collection of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculpture, medals, and decorative arts traces the development of Western Art from the Middle Ages to the present, including the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Americas and the largest mobile created by Alexander Calder.

The collection, which was begun in 1829, was first on display in the original Smithsonian Building, now nicknamed the "Castle". The collection grew as the Smithsonian buildings grew, and the collection was housed in one or more Smithsonian buildings on the National Mall. [4] By the 1920s, space had become critical: "Collections to the value of several millions of dollars are in storage or temporarily on exhibition and are crowding out important exhibits and producing a congested condition in the Natural History, Industrial Arts, and Smithsonian Buildings". [12] In 1924, architect Charles A. Platt – who designed the 1918 Freer Gallery for the Smithsonian – drew up preliminary plans for a National Gallery of Art to be built on the block next to the Natural History Museum. [12] However, this building was never constructed. [13]

Smithsonian Institution Building administrative building for Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution Building, located near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. behind the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery, houses the Smithsonian Institution's administrative offices and information center. The building is constructed of Seneca red sandstone in the faux Norman style and is nicknamed The Castle. It was completed in 1855 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

National Museum of Natural History Natural history museum in Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of Natural History is a natural history museum administered by the Smithsonian Institution, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., United States. It has free admission and is open 364 days a year. In 2016, with 7.1 million visitors, it was the fourth most visited museum in the world and the most visited natural history museum in the world. Opened in 1910, the museum on the National Mall was one of the first Smithsonian buildings constructed exclusively to hold the national collections and research facilities. The main building has an overall area of 1,500,000 square feet (140,000 m2) with 325,000 square feet (30,200 m2) of exhibition and public space and houses over 1,000 employees.

Arts and Industries Building Smithsonian Institution building

The Arts and Industries Building is the second oldest of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Initially named the National Museum, it was built to provide the Smithsonian with its first proper facility for public display of its growing collections. The building, designed by architects Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze, opened in 1881, hosting an inaugural ball for President James A. Garfield. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971. After being closed for renovation, the building opened in the spring of 2016 for events and exhibitions. Since August 2016, the Director of the Art and Industries Building has been Rachel Goslins.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum first opened to the public in its current location in 1968 when the Smithsonian renovated the Old Patent Office Building in order to display its collection of fine art. American Art's main building, the Old Patent Office Building, is a National Historic Landmark located in Washington, D.C.'s downtown cultural district. It is considered an example of Greek Revival architecture [14] in the United States. [15] It was designed by architects Robert Mills, [16] and Thomas U. Walter.

The historic Old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C. covers an entire city block defined by F and G Streets and 7th and 9th Streets NW in Chinatown. It served as one of the earliest United States Patent Office buildings.

National Historic Landmark formal designation assigned by the United States federal government to historic buildings and sites in the United States

A National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a building, district, object, site, or structure that is officially recognized by the United States government for its outstanding historical significance. Of over 90,000 places listed on the country's National Register of Historic Places, only some 2,500 are recognized as National Historic Landmarks.

Robert Mills, a South Carolina architect known for designing both the first Washington Monument, located in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the better known monument to the first president in the nation's capital, Washington, DC. He is sometimes said to be the first native-born American to be professionally trained as an architect. Charles Bulfinch of Boston perhaps has a clearer claim to this honor.

During the 1990s, the Smithsonian Institution worked on restoring the building. [17]

The Smithsonian completed another renovation of the building in July 1, 2006. [10] The 2000-2006 renovation restored many of the building’s exceptional architectural features: restoring the porticos modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, a curving double staircase, colonnades, vaulted galleries, large windows, and skylights as long as a city block. [10] [17] [8] During the renovation, the Lunder Conservation Center, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium, and the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard were added to the building. [17]

In 2008, the American Alliance of Museums awarded reaccreditation to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. [18]

The Smithsonian American Art Museum's main building is shared with the National Portrait Gallery, as seen from G Street NW in 2011 Old Patent Office, Washington, D.C. 2011.jpg
The Smithsonian American Art Museum's main building is shared with the National Portrait Gallery, as seen from G Street NW in 2011

Affiliated museums

The Smithsonian American Art Museum shares the historic Old Patent Office building with the National Portrait Gallery, another Smithsonian museum. Although the two museums' names have not changed, they are collectively known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. [10] [19]

The Renwick Gallery is located on Pennsylvania Avenue. Renwick Gallery - Pennsylvania Avenue.JPG
The Renwick Gallery is located on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Also under the auspices of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery is a smaller, historic building on Pennsylvania Avenue across the street from the White House. [20] The building originally housed the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. [20] [21] In addition to displaying a large collection of American contemporary craft, several hundred paintings from the museum’s permanent collection hung salon style: one-atop-another and side-by-side are featured in special installations in the Grand Salon. [20]

Features and programs


Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum has a broad variety of American art, with more than 7,000 artists represented, [22] that covers all regions and art movements found in the United States. SAAM contains the world's largest collection of New Deal art; a collection of contemporary craft, American impressionist paintings, and masterpieces from the Gilded Age; photography, modern folk art, works by African American and Latino artists, images of western expansion, and realist art from the first half of the twentieth century. Among the significant artists represented in its collection are Nam June Paik, Jenny Holzer, David Hockney, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Albert Bierstadt, Edmonia Lewis, Thomas Moran, James Gill, Edward Hopper, John William "Uncle Jack" Dey, Karen LaMonte [23] and Winslow Homer. [4]

SAAM describes itself as being "dedicated to collecting, understanding, and enjoying American art. The museum celebrates the extraordinary creativity of artists whose works reflect the American experience and global connections." [24]

Galleries and public spaces

The American Art's main building contains expanded permanent-collection galleries and public spaces. [25] The museum has two innovative public spaces. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art is a visible art storage and study center, which allows visitors to browse more than 3,300 works of the collection. [25] The Lunder Conservation Center is "the first art conservation facility to allow the public permanent behind-the-scenes views of the preservation work of museums". [25]

The Luce Foundation Center for American Art

The Luce Foundation Center for American Art on the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Luce Foundation Center for American Art 13.jpg
The Luce Foundation Center for American Art on the third floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Luce Foundation Center, which opened in July 2000, [26] [27] is the first visible art storage and study center in Washington, D.C. [10] and the fourth center to bear the Luce Family name. [10] [28] It has 20,400 square feet on the third and fourth floors of American Art Museum. [10] [29] [30] [31]

It presents more than 3,300 objects in 64 secure glass cases, which quadruples the number of artworks from the permanent collection on public view. [26] [10] The purpose of open storage is to allow patrons to view various niche art that is usually not part of a main exhibition or gala special. [29] The Luce Foundation Center features paintings densely hung on screens; sculptures; crafts and objects by folk and self-taught artists arranged on shelves. [32] [33] Large-scale sculptures are installed on the first floor. [26] The Center has John Gellatly’s European collection of decorative arts. [10] [31]

Lunder Conservation Center

Lunder Conservation Center Laboratory where the public is shown behind-the-scenes views of essential art preservation work. The Lunder Conservation Center Laboratory.jpg
Lunder Conservation Center Laboratory where the public is shown behind-the-scenes views of essential art preservation work.

The Lunder Conservation Center, which opened in July 2000, [34] is the first art conservation facility that allows the public permanent behind-the-scenes views of preservation work. [34] Conservation staff are visible to the public through floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow visitors to see firsthand all the techniques which conservators use to examine, treat, and preserve artworks. [35] [34] [36] The Lunder Center has five conservation laboratories and studios equipped to treat paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, sculptures, folk art objects, contemporary crafts, decorative arts, and frames. [35] [34] The Center uses various specialized and esoteric tools, such as hygrothermographs, to maintain optimal temperature and humidity to preserve works of art. Staff from both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery work in the Lunder Center. [34]

Selected exhibitions

The museum has put on hundreds of exhibitions since its founding. Many exhibitions are groundbreaking and promote new scholarship within the field of American art.

What follows is a brief list of selected, and more recent, examples: [37]


The museum has maintained a traveling exhibition program since 1951. During the 2000s renovation, a "series of exhibitions of more than 1,000 major artworks from American Art's permanent collection traveled to 105 venues across the United States," which were "seen by more than 2.5 million visitors". Since 2006, thirteen exhibitions have toured to more than 30 cities. [53]

SAAM provides electronic resources to schools and the public as part of education programs. An example is Artful Connections, which gives real-time video conference tours of American Art. In addition, the museum offers the Summer Institutes: Teaching the Humanities through Art, week-long professional development workshops that introduce educators to methods for incorporating American art and technology into their humanities curricula. [54]

American Art has seven online research databases, which has more than 500,000 records of artworks in public and private collections worldwide, including the Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture. Numerous researchers and millions of virtual visitors per year use these databases. Also, American Art and Heritage Preservation work together in a joint project, Save Outdoor Sculpture, "dedicated to the documentation and preservation of outdoor sculpture". The museum produces a peer-reviewed periodical, American Art (started in 1987), for new scholarship. Since 1993, American Art has been had an online presence. It has one of the earliest museum websites when, in 1995, it launched its own website. EyeLevel, the first blog at the Smithsonian Institution, was started in 2005 and, as of 2013, the blog "has approximately 12,000 readers each month". [55]

President Abraham Lincoln held his inaugural ball in the gallery currently called the Lincoln Gallery. [8]

In 2006, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi designed the conservators' denim work aprons. [36] [56] [57]

In 2008, the American Art Museum hosted an alternate reality game, called Ghosts of a Chance, which was created by City Mystery. The game allowed patrons "a new way of engaging with the collection" in the Luce Foundation Center. The game ran for six weeks and attracted more than 6,000 participants. [31]

Related Research Articles

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Joyce J. Scott is an African-American artist, sculptor, quilter, performance artist, installation artist, print-maker, lecturer and educator. Named a MacArthur Fellow in 2016, Scott is best known for her figurative sculptures and jewelry using free form, off-loom bead weaving techniques, similar to a peyote stitch. One piece may be constructed with thousands of glass seed or pony beads, and incorporate various other found objects and materials such as glass, quilting and leather. In 2018, she was hailed for working in new medium — a mixture of soil, clay, straw, and cement — for a sculpture meant to disintegrate and return to the earth. Scott is influenced by a variety of diverse cultures, including Native American and African traditions, Mexican, Czech, and Russian beadwork, illustration and comic books, and pop culture.

Norm Sartorius

Norm Sartorius is an American woodworker who carves fine art spoons in many styles including natural, biomorphic, abstract, symbolic, ethnic, and ceremonial. His works are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other public and private collections. He is a frequent participant in woodworking and craft shows in America, and won the Award of Excellence in Wood at the 2015 American Craft Council show in Baltimore and the 2015 Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, DC. Since 2008, he has co-directed a grant-funded research project on the life, work, and legacy of American woodworker Emil Milan.

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Jack Earl is an American ceramic artist and former teacher, known for drawing inspiration from his home state of Ohio to create rural pieces “with meticulous craftsmanship and astute details… to where you could smell the air, hear the silence and swat the flies.” Although his works hint at highly personal, intellectual, and narrative themes in an almost unsettling manner, Earl is “a self-described anti-intellectual who shuns the art world." He is known particularly for using his trademark format, the dos-a-dos : “This art form is like a book with two stories… the two seemingly incongruent images prompt the viewer to fill in the conceptual gap through poetic speculation.” His work often involves dogs or the character “Bill”, who is said to be a combination of Earl’s father-in-law, himself, and others. The titles to his pieces are typically lengthy, stream-of-consciousness narratives that suggest the folk or rural lifestyle. These are intended to add another dimension to the artwork. His work has received a notable response over his decades-long career, especially since he is regarded as “a master at reminding us that within the events we take for granted are moments of never-ending mystery and wonder.” Earl continues to live in Lakeview, Ohio with his wife, Fairlie.

Michael Janis

Michael Janis is an American artist currently residing in Washington, DC where he is one of the directors of the Washington Glass School. He is known for his work on glass using the exceptionally difficult sgraffito technique on glass.

Tim Tate American artist and the co-founder of the Washington Glass School

Tim Tate is an American artist and the co-founder of the Washington Glass School in the Greater Washington, DC capital area. The school was founded in 2001 and is now the second largest warm glass school in the United States. Tate was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1989 and was told that he had a year left to live. As a result, Tate decided to begin working with glass in order to leave a legacy behind. Over a decade ago, Tate began incorporating video and embedded electronics into his glass sculptures, thus becoming one of the first artists to migrate and integrate the relatively new form of video art into sculptural works. In 2019 he was selected to represent the United States at the sixth edition of the GLASSTRESS exhibition at the Venice Biennale.


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