The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s third-floor modern and contemporary galleries are open once again—this time, with a new installation featuring works from its permanent collection, “American Voices and Visions: Modern and Contemporary Art.” The recently rehung selection includes works by Barbra Kruger, Nick Cave, Allison Saar and Mickalene Thomas.
In a statement, Randall Griffey, head curator at SAAM, said the overhaul has given the institution a fresh opportunity to tell a richer and deeper story about art in the U.S. The curatorial team overseeing the project used the two-year refresh to re-examine what it means to be an American making art and as a result, the galleries are now home to more work by women, immigrant, LGBTQ, Black, Indigenous, Asian-American and Latinx artists.
“I’d like to think that people see themselves at home here,” Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of SAAM, told Observer. “It’s a new moment, and we have a very young audience.”
Post-refresh, 52 percent of the works on view in the modern and contemporary galleries are by artists of color and 42 percent are by women artists. There are also sections dedicated to feminist art, with work by Audrey Flack and Judith Back; art that pushes back on white, Eurocentric views, featuring work by Carlos Villa and Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee Nation); and protest art, including pieces by Consuelo Jimenez Underwood and AfriCOBRA member Barbara Jones-Hogu. There are also plenty of the usual suspects: Kandinsky, Basquiat, de Kooning and Diane Arbus.
The updated galleries also emphasize diversity of media and practices, including photography, sculpture, works on paper, craft and self-taught art, and nearly half of the pieces on display are recent acquisitions. “I believe that when you buy something or you’re gifted something important, it should go on display, as soon as possible,” says Stebich.
The entire wing feels bright, open and inviting but hasn’t been modernized, per se. The building’s historic architecture shines strongest in the Lincoln Gallery—a grand space with marble floors and square columns that got its name from its one-time role as host to President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball—by design. The technical details of the refresh were handled in part by Selldorf Architects, which was tasked with balancing the history of the building (originally the U.S. patent office) with the very modern needs of a major museum.
The disjunction between the two indirectly led to the rehang being a reckoning. A few years ago, it became evident that the building needed structural repairs that would require taking down a great deal of SAAM’s art. Stebich said that opportunity was too good to pass up. Thanks to the renovations, the institution has doubled the hanging space in the same square footage and created a more open floor plan that prompts visitors to travel naturally from one work to the next, creating unexpected but engaging connections.
It’s a treat to see provocative, contemporary art peeking out from behind classic pale marble columns. Everything about the galleries’ high ceilings suggests openness and vastness of scale, and Griffey and his team have taken full advantage, filling the space with large works by Martin Puryear, Louise Nevelson and Sam Gilliam. They also found a new home for Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (1995) that lets the work and its companions—Zen for TV (1963) and a rotating sample from the Nam June Paik Archive—rise to their full stature and breathe.
One memorable alcove focuses on Washington Color School artists. All of the works were created within a few miles of the museum itself, including Beta Upsilon (1960) by Morris Louis, which is on display publicly for the first time in thirty years. The work had been vandalized and could not be repaired, but the team at SAAM waited until restoration technology caught up to the damage; their patience has been rewarded.
Another showstopper comes courtesy of For SAAM (2007) by Jenny Holzer, a custom work that looks like a beam of light with eight hours of scrolling text that appears to wrap around it. The LED array with white diodes displays aphorisms and other bold proclamations without context—the speaker, their audience and their intentions are unknown.
A new dedicated space for time-based media, which includes a side-car “gray space” for artists’ work in other formats, is an immersive gem. It features doors rather than curtains, transporting visitors into the world of the work. A major multimedia installation Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me – A Story in 5 Parts and a rotating selection of five photos from the series Constructing History, both by Carrie Mae Weems, are currently on view.
Now that the third-floor updates are complete, the first- and second-floor renovations are already underway, with the goal of finishing the museum-wide refresh by 2026—a gift to the nation in time for its 250th birthday.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. except on December 25. Admission is free.