Picture, if you will, the stereotype of an American art collection at a major metropolitan museum circa 2007 — 13 years before the summer protests of 2020 brought a new tide of conversation about race and institutional power.
You might imagine oil paintings of landscapes, oil paintings of ships, oil portraits of white people, maybe a bronze “Indian warrior” and other depictions of Native Americans by non-Native artists. There could be lots of intricately wrought silver: finely embossed teapots and gleaming gravy boats.
That’s what the American art galleries of Seattle Art Museum — installed in 2007, featuring art between the 1600s and World War II — mostly look like.
SAM is ready for a change.
Those galleries are about to get a two-year overhaul with a more expansive and equitable lens, thanks in part to some grants, including $1 million from the Mellon Foundation and $75,000 from the Terra Foundation for American Art. (To be fair, SAM’s American art galleries are not all oil paintings by white people: There are exceptions, like the pensive plaster bust of Gwendolyn Knight, a Black artist, by Augusta Savage, another Black artist. But you get the idea.)
As part of that process, SAM has invited three artists to serve as co-curators: Inye Wokoma (co-founder of the Seattle Black arts center Wa Na Wari), Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke, based in Portland, Oregon) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂, based in Sitka, Alaska). SAM has also convened a 10-member “advisory circle” that will meet quarterly to assess progress and give feedback.
“Pretty much every collection of American art in the country is realizing it needs to rethink how it presents its collection,” said SAM American art curator Theresa Papanikolas. “They’ve had community outreach and focus groups, but we’re taking it a step further — we’re ceding authorship and sharing power so it’s not just one institutional voice but many voices.” (Papanikolas will help guide the reinstallation process, along with SAM Native American art curator Barbara Brotherton, plus the three invited artists and 10-member advisory circle.)
SAM estimates it has around 2,500 works in its American art collection — though, as usual, only a tiny fraction is exhibited at any given time. All three of the artist-collaborators are keenly interested in exploring that collection to think about how they might reframe the way SAM tells the story of pre-World War II American art.
“I’ve spent years in museum archives, traveling and visiting and studying and accessing,” said Galanin, whose recent projects have included “Never Forget” (large white letters just outside Palm Springs, California, spelling “INDIAN LAND” in the font of the Hollywood sign) and his band Ya Tseen has just released an album on Sub Pop.
“I’m an Indigenous artist and colonization has removed a lot of our objects — no, not removed, stolen — and placed them into institutions,” he said. “Not only objects but our ancestors’ remains, too.”
On a recent visit to SAM’s American art galleries, Wokoma said, he thought about how each object is embedded with histories — some obvious, some hidden.
“A piece of fine silverware is presented as an ornate, beautiful object at the height of craftsmanship for the period, etc., etc., but divorced from the economic realities of people who mine the silver and all the other things that come along with that,” Wokoma explained. “But there’s always a fine line between unpacking these connections and not doing something that’s overly didactic. 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.”
SAM isn’t alone.
This year, the Chicago-based Terra Foundation awarded a total of $2.5 million to 35 arts and cultural institutions as part of its “Re-envisioning Permanent Collections” initiative. (Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience also won a Mellon Grant, for $500,000, but to a slightly different purpose — supporting its Redlining Heritage Trail Project and an immersive installation by art collective Paradice Avenue Souf.)
Other $75,000 Terra awardees include the Tacoma Art Museum, the Portland Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.
“Museums realized the stories they were telling in their galleries was not sufficient,” said Terra president and CEO Sharon Corwin. “The univocal narrative, the chronological installation, who’s telling the story, what histories are not being told.”
When Terra announced its initiative, Corwin said, the response was “incredible” — the foundation was only able to fund around half the museums that expressed interest, but intends to continue the program.
COVID-19 and climate change also have something to do with it. Terra, like many other philanthropic entities in 2020, gave out a first round of coronavirus emergency-relief grants — but then wondered what post-pandemic programming might look like.
While talking with museum directors and curators, Corwin and Terra realized many of them were taking a new look at their permanent collections, and wondering whether the era of big-ticket traveling exhibitions (like “Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum” or “Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement,” both of which toured to SAM in 2019) was coming to an end.
Those expensive road shows involve a lot of traveling, organizing and borrowing from around the world.
“It was unclear financially what that landscape was going to look like in the COVID/post-COVID world,” Corwin explained. “There were also questions about its sustainability in terms of carbon impact. There are lots of reasons to think beyond that model.”
Many museums applying for the Terra grants had some level of community input, Corwin said, but SAM’s inclusion of three artists as major collaborators seemed like a step beyond. “Centering artists in that conversation, and giving them curatorial authority and agency is really important,” she said.
SAM’s two-year installation project is only just beginning, and nobody’s sure how things will turn out — Wokoma, Red Star and Galanin are hopeful their involvement will be substantive, and not just DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) window dressing.
Wokoma hopes the reinstallation is part of a trajectory at the museum: With “Double Exposure” in 2018, SAM exhibited famous (and, in some ways, problematic) photographs of Native Americans by Edward Curtis alongside contemporary work by Native artists Will Wilson, Tracy Rector and Marianne Nicolson. And last year, Wokoma was part of an advisory committee to guide the presentation of SAM’s 2021 Jacob Lawrence exhibition.
But he remains cautious. “I had some good experiences, but does that mean the institution as a whole has changed?” he asked. “No. The museum still has its history, is embodied in the objects it owns, still garners certain kinds of financial support and political relationships, and all that constitutes institutional power.”
Still, he adds, the possibility for meaningful, long-term change is there: “In pop music, they say, ‘You’re only as good as your last hit.’ In this case, change is only predicated on whether you do the next courageous thing to challenge your own built-in hegemony. You’ve done this, you’ve done that, so what’s next? What’s the next courageous thing?”