“I was aware of this gallery, but I never came into it,” said Inye Wokoma, co-founder of Seattle’s Black art space Wa Na Wari during a recent walk-through of Seattle Art Museum’s “American Art: The Stories We Carry.” This new installation, now open, is a re-imagining of SAM’s American art galleries, an effort that hopes to rectify a vision of American art that has historically centered white artists. Some artists of color said they would avoid those galleries completely when visiting SAM because they didn’t see themselves reflected in the artworks on the wall.

“When I came to SAM,” Wokoma continued, “I would come up the escalator, I would peek, it would look sort of dark and mysterious, I’d see a couple of portraits of big, tall white dudes and I would go up the escalator. That was my relationship to this space.”

This new installation aims to offer a more expansive view of American art, one where folks from all backgrounds can see themselves and their communities. To do so, SAM is putting the American art that has historically been featured in the galleries into conversation with its Native, modern and contemporary art collections, an intersectional approach to art that Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, said she’s been wanting since she joined the museum in 2019.

“It was apparent to me immediately that the gallery, as it stood, was beautiful, but it didn’t really talk to the other galleries around it,” said Papanikolas.

Featuring a collaborative effort that included three individual artists, four emerging professionals and an 11-person advisory circle with members ranging from arts educators to historians to a specialist in ethnomuseology (the study of museum curation alongside cultural traditions), SAM joins a growing trend in museum curation. A conference for the Association of Historians of American Art that Papanikolas attended was full of curators around the country looking to redo their American art collections. Funding for this effort included grants from the Terra Foundation for American Art and $1 million from the Mellon Foundation, the latter of which Papanikolas said was the easiest and biggest grant she’s ever gotten.

Papanikolas said they knew they didn’t want to take a normal curatorial route. They wanted to have more voices involved. She asked Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art, to collaborate. Though the Native American art and American art galleries are right next to each other, Brotherton explained, they usually stayed on their own separate tracks. But over the last three years or so, Brotherton has seen folks looking deeper at their curatorial practices, which led to the realization that there needed to be “an institutional shift” in philosophy around what art is and whose work is included.


“That’s what really turned the dial on our thinking, that this is a permanent thing,” said Brotherton, who said during a tour of the galleries that this would be her final project before she retires after 21 years at the museum. “Native American art is always going to be part of American art. And we looked at other parts of the collection too — with African American artists and Asian American artists, Latino artists — realizing that they have a place in this dialogue. How did we miss it in the past?”

When the 11-person advisory circle was brought on, Papanikolas said SAM’s leadership was met with hard questions from the advisers, specifically about the museum’s commitment to making real, lasting change. Jake Prendez, owner and co-director of Seattle’s Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery and advisory circle member, called the first meeting an airing of grievances.

“I just remember one of the first meetings where we actually went to SAM to check out the space, and it was very clear just looking at the American collection that there were some beautiful pieces of art, but just nothing spoke to me,” Prendez said. “There just wasn’t any representation. It kind of was like an exhibition of old white men.”

While SAM hoped to rectify that feeling, Prendez said that there was a fear early on that the work of artists from typically marginalized communities would only exist as a contrast to the work of white artists, rather than these artists of color getting their own due. But through the conversations, which included seven meetings over 15 months, Prendez said he felt like SAM’s leaders listened and learned from the advisory’s notes, coming back with an inclusive plan.

Papanikolas said they chose to move away from a chronological approach to showcasing American art. It was a way to distance the galleries from a “deterministic, authoritarian march through history” that “distills the history of American art and leaves a lot out,” Papanikolas said. She recalled a conversation during an advisory circle meeting where one member was struggling with this particular shift away from a chronological approach.

“We’re not here to teach history,” Papanikolas recalled saying. “If you want art history, you can read an art history book, you can go to an art history class. We’re here to create experiences for our visitors and to present our collection in the most engaging way possible.”


Now, the galleries focus on themes. For instance, one area highlights artists from varying backgrounds exploring the ideas of place and nature. One of the more striking elements is a section focused on portraiture, a staple in American art, where you can see the expected portraits from 1700s painters like John Singleton Copley alongside the bold colors of a stunning 2013 work from Kehinde Wiley.

But perhaps the most impactful collaborations come from SAM’s work with artists Wendy Red Star and Inye Wokoma, with an additional work from Nicholas Galanin to join the gallery in spring 2023. A glowing lightbox portrait from Portland-based Apsáalooke artist Red Star now greets visitors to the American art gallery. Alongside a soundscape of the Lushootseed language from language specialist Angela Wymer, Red Star’s newly commissioned work, “Áakiiwilaxpaake (People Of The Earth),” provides an introduction into this new approach to American art. The work features two American art staples, portraiture and landscapes, but places photos of Indigenous women and children against a Seattle landscape background.

“What’s great about having ‘People of the Earth’ as an entrance-point welcoming piece is that it is very inviting and warm,” Red Star said. “That’s been my issue with the American galleries, not ever feeling like I had a place within those galleries. I hope that [‘People of the Earth’] is more inviting, that people feel grounded within the space and like they’re part of that history.”

Meanwhile, Wokoma curated a number of works from SAM’s collection to offer a new framework for interpreting the featured art. Wokoma said he wanted to focus on who made these works and why, diving into an artist’s entire life and body of work to see how one particular artwork fits in context. He found that, the more he learned, the more the way he would see a work changed. As an example, he pointed to “A Moment of Suspense,” a 1909 work from Henry Farny that, on first blush, could be seen as a continuation of white artists interpreting the lives of Indigenous people.

“Whenever I see white American artists, Europeans painting Indigenous people, my first inclination is that there’s an element of voyeurism and romanticism,” Wokoma said. 

But then he read about how Farny grew up in the Northeast, adjacent to the Seneca reservation, and how Farny spent time living among the Sioux. As he learned, he started to see how Farny painted Indigenous peoples in a way that showed complex interactions with one another and the land. It led to Wokoma starting to ask philosophical questions, like wondering how Farny, who seemed to have a real relationship with the people he painted, felt about being part of an overall political mechanism that imposed a narrative that these were vanishing people.


“If I were to take that one example,” Wokoma said, “I could say, ‘OK, there’s actually a way for me to approach this collection, to approach works that I would have kept at arm’s length, in a way that actually feels real.’”

As SAM looks ahead at the future of its newly redone galleries, Papanikolas said she hopes this will slow patrons down as they go through, taking in the historical works alongside the contemporary and finding new personal meaning in the art. Both Papanikolas and Brotherton said they know there are still moments in history that haven’t been highlighted in this particular version of the installation, and artists who aren’t yet in their collection, but they’re excited about the flexibility and nimbleness of these galleries and their ability to respond to an evolving definition of “American art.”

“When you let everybody in, and allow them to also stake their claim in history, it’s a much more complex story, but it’s much more rich,” Brotherton said. “We think of this as a first step.”

“American Art: The Stories We Carry”

Ongoing; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $12.99-$22.99 (children 14 and under free); 206-654-3100; seattleartmuseum.org