On the heels of a year defined by protests over racial injustice, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) announced today a two-year project that will extensively transform their American art galleries to better reflect perspectives overlooked by mainstream art history.
The "reimagining" is funded primarily by a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, with additional funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art. The museum said the project comes with an "unprecedented" collaboration between SAM staff, curators, artists, and advisors from Seattle's community. Together, three Black and Indigenous artists and a 10-person advisory council will help shape the new galleries into a more thematic and inclusive presentation of American art.
The museum has not significantly altered its American art galleries, which compose part of the museum's third floor, since it reopened its expanded downtown location in 2007. The museum admitted that the galleries are "critically overdue" for an overhaul, and SAM's American art curator Theresa Papanikolas noted the museum isn't alone in reassessing the presentation of its permanent collection.
"Every museum in the country is really having to come to terms with its American art collection," said Papanikolas, who guides the project in partnership with SAM's Native American art curator, Barbara Brotherton. "How American art is defined, who gets to be talked about, what gets left out of the story and why, are big questions that every museum is asking itself right now."
Three artists will join Papanikolas and Brotherton in this endeavor. Sitka-based artist Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂), Portland-based artist and 2016 Betty Bowen winner Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke), and Wa Na Wari's Inye Wokoma will all dig into the collection beginning this summer.
The three will review and select objects from SAM's American and Native American art collections to display. According to the museum's announcement, they will also "offer new interpretations, create fresh juxtapositions and comparisons of objects, collaborate on gallery design, and share their regional and cultural knowledge." Additionally, they'll create newly commissioned work that will respond to the collection.
"There’s always a fine line between unpacking these connections and not doing something that’s overly didactic," Wokoma told Brendan Kiley at the Seattle Times about the project. "It’s a challenge — I don’t want to create something that feels like a lecture. There’s room to appreciate objects as objects, and room to explore the full context of the time and place they were created.”
With an estimated 2,500 objects in SAM's American art collection—including painting, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative arts—the museum plans to lean into its strengths during this reorganization rather than provide a comprehensive overview of American art.
Papanikolas told me that the work Foong Ping and Xiaojin Wu put into the recent thematic and existential overhaul of the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) inspired her. SAM's project will take a cue from SAAM, folding in the contemporary with the 18th century, Western paintings with Native American art, and other unexpected pairings to hopefully offer better context and understanding of American history.
In particular, she pointed out the SAM's recent acquisition of a Grafton Tyler Brown landscape depicting the Columbia River. Brown was the first Black artist to paint the Pacific Northwest and California, but whose work is traditionally left out of discussion of mainstream movements like the Hudson River School. This reimagining could be an opportunity to better position Brown among his contemporaries.
The project will also establish an Advisory Circle, Seattle's newest, hottest, and most inclusive club. The Circle consists of a group of paid advisors that would meet every three months throughout the project to give "critical input on the development of the checklist, interpretation, marketing, and programming."
Some members include Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation) of yəhaw̓ Indigenous Creatives Collective, writer Mayumi Tsutakawa, ethnomuseumologist Delbert Richardson, and Jared Mills from Seattle Public Library whom you may recognize as the Old Witch terrorizing White Center.
One final aspect of the project is six new paid internships in SAM's curatorial and conservation departments, two areas that historically have not equitably counted people of color within their ranks. Each department will get three interns: one "intensive" 21-month internship for grad students, and two 10-week internships for "emerging leaders" that will come out of the museum's Emerging Arts Leader internship model. Black, Indigenous, and other of color candidates are especially encouraged to apply.
SAM's newly reimagined American art gallery will officially debut sometime in October 2022.