Art of American Experience

Visit the Smithsonian American Art Museum and witness centuries of dreams, challenges and creativity in the United States.

By Michael Gallant

September 2019

Art of American Experience

The Smithsonian American Art Museum houses an unparalleled array of American works that span centuries. Photograph by Deepanjali Kakati


What does it mean to be American? This is the question that one museum in Washington, D.C., seeks to answer not with words, but with paint, pencil, photograph, collage, sculpture, technology and more.

Located in the heart of the United States’ capital, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) houses an unparalleled array of American works that span centuries. On display are creations ranging from modern folk art and room-sized installations made from televisions to distinctive African American art and even video games.

The museum describes its collection as one of the largest and most inclusive in the world, a vast spread of works that reveal America’s rich cultural history from the late 1600’s to today. It’s a visually stunning array, and every work carries a deeper significance as well.

The museum’s collection of folk and self-taught art shows the creations of American artists who were untrained but nonetheless crafted significant works; ranging from beautiful, hand-sewn quilts to large and small pieces carved from materials like limestone and wood. These pieces reflect themes of personal exploration, struggle and transformation.

Equally symbolic is “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii,” a massive electronic installation shaped like a map of the United States. The work includes neon lighting, steel and wood, and over 300 televisions simultaneously showing 51 different channels of video. Artist Nam June Paik, an immigrant from Korea, drew inspiration from the United States’ interstate highway system, the huge diversity of the American people and the transformative power of digital media to explore the meaning and identity of his new home country.

“Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii,” a massive electronic installation shaped like a map of the United States, by Nam June Paik. The work includes neon lighting, steel and wood, and over 300 televisions simultaneously showing 51 different channels of video. Photograph © Nam June Paik Estate

The museum also has a vast collection of paintings that may be more traditional in format and materials, but are creatively groundbreaking. These include Edward Hopper’s rich, contemplative paintings of American buildings and structures, as well as the works of William H. Johnson, a virtuosic and folk art-influenced African American painter.

Many of the exhibitions at SAAM focus on inspiring visions of the present and future. An exhibition of photographs by David Levinthal fills gallery walls with iconic images of popular American culture, like those of Barbie dolls, baseball players and toy cowboys. Despite a playful veneer, the museum website states that the exhibition encourages visitors to “consider the stories we tell about ourselves—what it means to be strong, beautiful, masculine, feminine, and ultimately, American.”

Visitors to SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, a branch located across the street from the White House, can also view an exhibition that blends traditional craft with augmented reality technology; unique sculptures of clay, glass and metal meant to inspire wonder in the natural world; and much more. Till January 2019, the gallery hosted “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” a showcase of works created for the massive, bohemian Burning Man festival that happens every year in the desert of Nevada. The exhibition filled the gallery with immersive, ceiling-scraping installation sculptures, as well as funky, one-of-a-kind costumes and jewelry created for the festival. SAAM describes “No Spectators” as a major success for the institution. The exhibition is currently being shown at other museums around the United States.

Beyond its compelling exhibitions and storied collection, SAAM organizes a wide variety of programs that spread and support the legacy of American art. The museum hosts lectures by prominent American artists and curators, for example, as well as film festivals and hands-on art-making workshops. It also has initiatives to make SAAM’s offerings accessible to visually- and hearing-impaired visitors.

Museum visitors use 3D printing to make crafts at its “Handi-hour Innovation” event. Photograph by Smithsonian American Art Museum/Courtesy Flickr

The museum is also home to the Lunder Conservation Center, a group of five laboratories and studios that give visitors unprecedented access to watch, on a daily basis, the conservation experts of both SAAM and the National Portrait Gallery restoring and maintaining artworks, frames and objects. The museum describes the center as the “first permanent, fully-visible conservation lab” of its kind. SAAM houses the Research and Scholars Center, which supports the study of American art. College students can engage in internships at the museum, while artists and art historians can take part in a residential fellowship program. Other initiatives include prizes, research archives and peer-reviewed journals of new scholarship.

Whether you’re eager to dive deep into the art of American history, see cutting-edge installations that encourage us to dream of the future or watch the preservation of priceless works in real time, don’t miss your chance to explore this special museum.

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.


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