Seattle Art Museum transforms its American Art Galleries
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Seattle Art Museum transforms its American Art Galleries
Minidoka Series #2: Exodus, 1978, Roger Y. Shimomura, acrylic on canvas 60 x 72 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ofell H. Johnson, 79.5 © Roger Y. Shimomura.

SEATTLE, WA.- The Seattle Art Museum presents American Art: The Stories We Carry (October 20, 2022–ongoing), the first major reinstallation of the museum’s American art collection in 15 years. Funded primarily by a $1 million grant from The Mellon Foundation and a $75,000 grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the exhibition brings the museum’s historical American collection—predominately comprised of works by artists of European descent—into conversation with Native, Asian American, African American, and Latinx art, including contemporary art and new acquisitions and commissions. The galleries will feature regular rotations beginning in April 2023.

The Stories We Carry is the result of a two-year process and an unprecedented level of collaboration among SAM curators and staff, regional artists, and advisors from the Seattle community. Two key goals of the project were to create a new interpretive framework for the American art galleries that brings forward historically excluded narratives and artistic forms and to deepen the museum’s commitment to inclusive exhibition-planning practices. The project was led by Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, in partnership with Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art.

Collaborators on the project to interrogate and recontextualize the collection were artists Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂, b. 1979) and Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke, b. 1981), who created new commissions; artist and co-founder of Wa Na Wari Inye Wokoma, who curated a gallery in the exhibition; four emerging museum professionals in paid curatorial and conservation internships; and an advisory circle comprised of 11 experts from the Seattle area. The exhibition website shares in-depth details on the project, including a project timeline, photos, and videos.

“This is a new era for American art at SAM,” says Amada Cruz, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO. “After two years of serious inquiry and dynamic collaborations with important partners, we are thrilled to unveil this exhibition to the community. We are deeply grateful to the Mellon and Terra foundations and others for their support of this major project, which not only opens up new avenues of exploration in our American art galleries but will have an impact on how the museum approaches exhibitions of its global collection in the future.”

“With this project, Barbara and I are seeking ways to expand the American art canon and challenge fixed definitions of American art,” says Papanikolas. “Collaborating with our many partners has brought fresh perspectives to this work as well as a layer of accountability not always present in exhibition planning. The reinstalled galleries are not only the physical manifestation of this process, but also, we hope, an incubator for ever-evolving ideas of what American art can and should be.”


The project began with the question, “what is American art?” SAM’s American art galleries were last substantially reinstalled in 2007 for the opening of the expanded downtown museum, giving preference to the historical American art canon over the many perspectives that have driven cultural production in North America from the 17th century to World War II, particularly those of artists active in the Pacific Northwest region’s diverse communities.

SAM’s historical American art collection is approximately 2,500 examples of painting, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative arts. It features works by nationally renowned and historically significant artists, as well as Pacific Northwest artists long overdue for closer examination within the American context. The reinstallation emphasizes a more critical and intimate approach to the story of American art, in particular how it intersects with the museum’s Native American art collection, which is presented in adjacent galleries.


With artworks across a range of media and genres—including portraiture, landscape, sculpture, decorative arts, and textiles—The Stories We Carry presents America’s complicated history across several themes.

The first gallery that visitors enter, Storied Places, fittingly starts with the land itself, exploring diverse approaches to place, nature, and the landscape genre. Visitors are beckoned into the space by Wendy Red Star’s light box installation, Áakiiwilaxpaake (People Of The Earth), in which portraits of local Native women and children are set within the iconic Seattle skyline, including Mount Tahoma (also known as Mount Rainier). This section also explores landscape paintings by Grafton Tyler Brown (American, 1841‒1918) and Sanford Robinson Gifford (American, 1823‒1880) that reveal how nineteenth-century artists prioritized travel and observation in pictures of the new nation’s most famous destinations, whereas a work by Shaun Peterson “Qwalsius” (Tulalip/Puyallup, b. 1975) offers a more experiential approach to the land as a keeper of stories and sustainer of culture. Also on view in this section are works by modernists Morris Graves (American, 1910‒2001), Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887‒1986), and George Tsutakawa (American, 1910‒1997).

The next theme, Transnational America, explores how North America became part of a global network of ideas, economies, and cultures and unearths the histories embedded in objects of migration, trade, and exploration.

American tableware and textiles reflect extensive systems of labor and commerce; although fabricated in North American workshops and homes, they are the products of materials and processes that originated the world over—more often than not at substantial human and environmental cost. Objects by Native artists were made specifically, and out of necessity, for trade in light of diminished access to longstanding cultural practices. This section also features landscapes and city scenes that reveal the regional sentiments and allegiances that complicated the notion of a unified nation.

Reimagining Regionalism was curated by Inye Wokoma.

Invited by the museum to participate in the project, he was inspired to curate a new interpretive framework around some of the collection’s most well-known works and elevate historically excluded narratives of communities in the Pacific Northwest. Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All
My Relations (2007) by Marie Watt (Seneca, b. 1967) is a towering column of blankets placed in the center of the gallery, a visual metaphor for the importance of Native communities past and present in American history. The epic painting Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (1870) by Albert Bierstadt (American, born in Prussia, 1830-1902) was commissioned by a wealthy merchant; its grand imaginings of the landscape contrast with the seemingly inconsequential Indigenous figures along the shoreline. The elevator screen from the Chicago Stock Exchange (ca. 1893-94) by Louis Sullivan (American, 1856-1924) is a literal emblem of economic expansion, its seed grain symbols representing the overwhelming might of colonialism. Now installed so that visitors can circulate entirely around it and look through it, the screen offers an opportunity to consider what this gateway was leading to—and what it kept out.

Ancestors + Descendants considers the complexities of portraiture, long a dominant American art form, and reveals the multiplicity of American identities. Anthony of Padua (2013) by Kehinde Wiley (American, b. 1977), an important work in SAM’s contemporary art collection, is placed near Dr. Silvester Gardiner (1708-1786) by John Singleton Copley (born in Boston, 1738‒ 1815), an anchor work in SAM’s historical American art collection. Shown side-by-side, the striking similarities in the figures’ poses highlight their differences, creating a dramatic reimagining of a historical paradigm. This section also features The Accident (1939), a tempera painting by Kenneth Callahan (American, 1905‒1986) that underwent extensive conservation for this project; new research connects this scene of a Pacific Northwest workplace accident to Callahan’s many trips to Mexico, where he learned from and worked with artists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. A lithograph by Rivera (Mexican, 1886‒1957) is also on view in this section. A romanticized depiction of an Indigenous artist by George de Forest Brush (American, 1854/1855-1941) reveals how white artists who spent time in Native communities sentimentalized their subjects and devalued actual Indigenous livelihoods at the turn of the twentieth century.

This section also features portraits by John Singer Sargent (born in Italy, 1856‒ 1925), Augusta Savage (American, 1892‒1962), Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917‒2000), Will Wilson (Diné, b. 1969), and Amy Sherald (American, b. 1973).

Memory Keepers reflects on different cultural approaches to storytelling, remembering, and legacies, with a special focus on the Pacific Northwest region. Four Self-Portraits (1995), the museum’s first acquisition by the Chicanx artist Alfredo Arreguín (American, born in Mexico, 1935) is on view alongside works by Paul Horiuchi (American, born in Japan, 1906-1999), Annie May Young (American, 1928-2013), and Cecilia Concepción Alvarez (American, b. 1950). Also on view are intimate photographs by Eduardo Calderón (Peruvian, b. 1948) of Seattle jazz legends including Ernestine Anderson and Quincy Jones. Another important new acquisition, ceremonial regalia by Danielle Morsette (Stó:lō First Nation/Suquamish; Shxwhá:y Village, b. 1987), joins other regional Native garments and basketry.

The reinstallation also debuts a new direction: one of the museum’s galleries dedicated to modern American art will feature ongoing temporary installations exploring fresh perspectives. The first iteration presents the narrative series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture (1986–97) by Jacob Lawrence. The 15 silkscreen prints are a recent acquisition by the museum and are on view at SAM for the first time. The series—based on Lawrence’s 1936 painting series—celebrates the revolutionary Haitian strategist and statesman (1743– 1803) who liberated his country from colonial rule to establish the first independent Black republic.

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