As the country’s preeminent institution dedicated to the cultivation and study of American art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) carries the unique curatorial responsibility of capturing the expansive and multifaceted nature of the nation’s culture in its displays. During a complex and often fraught period in United States history marked by social and political upheaval accompanied by changing perspectives, a mindful approach to growing a museum’s collection is one of the most visible ways it can tell important stories.
This is the impetus behind a recent acquisition campaign coinciding with the 50th anniversary in 2022 of SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, the nation’s leading center for American craft. Formally launched in 2020, the acquisition program has brought more than 200 objects into SAAM’s permanent collection, markedly increasing the number of Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and women artists represented in the museum’s holdings.
“When it comes to expanding the museum’s collection, our priority is to break barriers further,” says Nora Atkinson, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge for the Renwick Gallery, who chaired the campaign. “At 50 years, we have an opportunity to look back at our history, see where we have succeeded and fallen short, and recalibrate as we embark on the next 50 years. By including people of all genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and abilities in our collection and examining all forms of craft practice with genuine curiosity, we are building a national collection that showcases a multiplicity of perspectives and expceriences.”
The Renwick Gallery’s acquisition campaign is part of a larger SAAM initiative that has to date brought in many significant works by a broadly representative and diverse group of American artists in all media, from painting and sculpture to time-based media, photographs, self-taught art, and contemporary craft. Such notable works include Orilla Verde at the Rio Grande (2012), one of three paintings by Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick; Ana Mendieta’s iconic 1973 short film Sweating Blood; and the multimedia installation Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me—A Story in 5 Parts (2012), the first work by 2013 MacArthur Foundation Fellow Carrie Mae Weems to enter SAAM’s holdings.
The recent acquisitions similarly bridge the chronological span of its extant collection. A milestone bequest by collector Larry J. West in 2021 introduced a trove of early photographs dating from the 1840s to 1920s, including work by pioneering African American daguerreotypists James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington. Anchored on the opposite end by contemporary entries such as Arthur Jafa’s 2016 short film Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, the museum’s collection presents 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 others will be unveiled in “This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World.” The exhibition, which will open on May 13 and run through April 2, 2023, at SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, demonstrates the sheer breadth of new craft work in the museum’s permanent collection, with approximately 135 of the 170 artworks on display never having been seen before at this site.
There is an undeniable political through-line that binds the works in the exhibition, which takes its title from This Present Moment (2019–20), a sculpture by Texas-based 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 the focus here, and many of these touchstone works date from the past decade. The exhibition also notably debuts a new piece by quiltmaker Bisa Butler, who weaves vibrant threads into captivating life-size portraits of Black Americans. Butler’s Harlem Hellfighters (2021–22) brings to life a segregated unit of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. The soldiers are rendered in a patchwork of cotton, silk, wool, and velvet against a quilted backdrop. In typical Butler fashion, their eyes are trained on the viewer; the intensity of their gaze, coupled with the electrifying colors and sumptuous materiality of their vestments, imbues Butler’s subjects with a lifelike immediacy.
The exhibition also points to the iterative nature of craft art in works that refract traditional elements through the prism of modernity. Bold extrapolation upon form is the calling card for Philadelphia-born ceramist Roberto Lugo, who embellishes luxury porcelain objects with a graffiti artist’s sensibility to comment on social issues. His 2021 work Juicy elaborately adorns a stoneware vase with the likenesses of hip-hop icons and bright colors suggestive of his family’s Puerto Rican origins.
Other pieces signify an extension of that tradition. Glass artist Preston Singletary creates elegant sculptures that draw upon the iconography of his Tlingit heritage. Safe Journey (2021) is excerpted from his series of “Spirit Boxes,” based on traditional storage boxes used by Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest.
One of SAAM’s most momentous new additions is also one of its most timely. Sonya Clark’s Monumental (2019) was inspired by a discovery she made in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections in 2011, when the noted fiber artist was conducting research as a Smithsonian Artist Residence Fellow. The object was a white dishtowel, which was waved to announced the Confederate Army’s surrender in 1865 at the Appomattox Court House.
Clark’s own piece, woven from linen using traditional methods, recreates its unassuming source material on a massive scale. The title both alludes to the work’s utter scope and draws a connection to ever-unfolding conversations on racial justice and the significance of historical symbols amid a nationwide reckoning over Confederate statues.
Monumental is arguably the linchpin work of “This Present Moment,” not least because its message succinctly distills the thesis of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s recent acquisition efforts. Situated mere blocks from the National Mall and the White House, the SAAM galleries share psychic real estate with some of America’s most ideologically significant sites. This proximity raises a question: While it’s true that monuments are principally signifiers of history, are they not also ongoing testaments to shared values?
Unlike fixed monuments, however, an art museum has the opportunity to evolve its values based on the curation of its contents. The expansion of SAAM’s collection to include such bold and varied pieces as these underscores the museum’s commitment to both championing significant works by American artists and offering nuanced insight into the plurality of the American experience.