Behind the Reenvisioning of American Art at SAM
Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, with Wendy Red Star, Apsáalooke (Crow) artist, and her lightbox installation Áakiiwilaxpaake (People of the Earth), 2022, commissioned by SAM. Photo: L. Fried

Behind the Reenvisioning of American Art at SAM

Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA - Ongoing

by Matthew Kangas

When Theresa Papanikolas was named Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at Seattle Art Museum five years ago, she faced a challenge: how to refresh a core collection with works by Indigenous artists as well as Hispanic, Asian and African Americans who had formerly been segregated or overlooked entirely as part of the history of American art. With her colleague Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art, Papanikolas led a two-year collaborative effort seeking, in her words, “to expand the American art canon and challenge fixed definitions of American art.”

Rejecting a chronological narrative, SAM’s American Art Galleries were reinstalled with a thematic approach as The Stories We Carry, exploring the multiple strands and inherent complexities of American art history. This restaging of the museum’s American art collection was critical, Papanikolas told Preview. “Before, it didn’t tell a story. The last time it was reinstalled was 2007. Now there is more conversation with Native art and the contemporary collection. This way, we can expand our definition to answer the question ‘What is American art?’ and the possibilities are expanding considerably.”

As important as this “redefined” art history on the museum’s walls – and closely tied to it – was the reenvisioning process itself. Staff consulted with a group of 11 advisors, including artists, educators and other community representatives. In addition, promoting equity, the museum hired two graduate-level students and two emerging arts leaders in paid internships. Thanks to generous funding support, SAM also collaborated with three contemporary artists.

Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂) and Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke (Crow) artist, each created new commissions for the galleries. And Seattle-born Inye Wokoma, co-founder of the Black art and media center Wa Na Wari, curated the gallery titled Reimagining Regionalism. Their contributions bring new voices and interpretations to SAM’s American art collection. “This way the collection continues to grow,” says Papanikolas, “but in a more relevant fashion. Our future programming will reflect all this as well.”

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