Smithsonian American Art Museum

Located at 8th and F Streets NW in the heart of downtown Washington D.C., the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) shares the Reynolds Center with the National Portrait Gallery. John Varden’s European art collection, and gifts from individuals and art organizations provided the basis of the first federal art collection in 1829. As the collection grew, it was moved from Varden’s home in 184l to the newly created National Institute at its present location in the old U.S. Patent Office Building. For a while, it resided in the Smithsonian Castle until the fire in 1865 resulted in the majority of the collection being placed on loan to the Library of Congress and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1906, a federal court decision, based on the probated will of Harriet Johnston (art collector and niece of President James Buchanan), established a National Gallery of Art. Subsequently, it was renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts with the acquisition of Andrew Mellon’s European art collection, then changed to the National Museum of American Art, and finally approved by Congress in October 2000 as the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Museum today houses more than 40,000 works of art, covering a period of over 300 years in U.S. history. From colonial portraits, American impressionism, and New Deal projects to 20th century realism and contemporary art, more than 7,000 artists have contributed their talent to the original collection. In addition to Latino, African American, and folk art, SAAM has extensive galleries and exhibits of sculpture, photography, drawings, and crafts. Some of the artists represented here are Sargent, Hopper, O’Keefe, Copley, and Puryear.

After six years and $300 million of extensive renovation, this historic building reopened to the public in 2006. Many of the architectural details were kept from the original Patent Office building, designed by Robert Mills, including the curving staircase, vaulted galleries, and the original marble tiles of the Lincoln Gallery. New additions were made, as well, including the Luce Foundation Center and the Lunder Conservation Facility, where visitors can observe conservators at work through floor to ceiling glass windows. The Luce Center features over 3,300 objects enclosed in glass cases, paintings hung on screens, shelves of crafts and folk art, and drawers of miniatures and medals, as well as large sculptures and interactive computer kiosks providing detailed information on the displays. An additional feature to the building is the Robert and Arlene Kogod glass-canopied, landscaped courtyard that serves as a year-round venue for visitors to SAAM and the National Portrait Gallery. Another unique attraction is the 33-foot installation by Nam June Paik, Korean born video artist, which portrays the states in popular images on TV monitors; e.g., The Wizard of Oz for Kansas.

Current exhibitions include The Prints of Sean Scully, the Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark, honoring the 170th anniversary of the building’s construction and the recent renovation of one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the U.S. Among the upcoming exhibitions planned for the Museum in 2007 are Over the Top: American Posters from World War I, John Alexander’s A Retrospective of neo-expressionist landscape artistry, and the watercolors of Yosemite by Japanese artist Chiura Obata. In addition, exhibits for 2008 will include Color As Field: American Painting 1950 — 1975, a modern abstract collection represented by artists such as Poons, Stella, and Frankenthaler; African American art by Aaron Douglas, and 40 paintings and 50 photographs of Natural Affinities by O’Keefe and Ansel Adams.

SAAM has sponsored traveling exhibitions since 1951, and current displays include the prints and serigraphs of William Johnson’s World On Paper, and Eliju Vedder’s drawings and designs for the 1880 edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The Museum shares the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium with the National Portrait Gallery, where lectures, films, and performing arts presentations are held for the public. In addition to tours and gallery talks, visitors enjoy summer jazz, craft workshops, sketchbook artistry, and other events and programs.

Hours: Daily (except December 25), 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Docent tours: 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. Admission — Free. Handicap accessible, wheelchairs available.
Museum store and dining facilities on premises.
Parking: On street metered and parking lots nearby.

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