The Smithsonian American Art Museum has engaged Selldorf Architects to revitalize its permanent collection galleries and renew key public spaces, marking the first comprehensive reinstallation of the museum’s exhibition and interpretation spaces since 2006 when its National Historic Landmark building was last renovated. The design will set the stage for a new vision of American art at the nation’s flagship collection, showcasing newly acquired works, foregrounding new voices, and adding interpretation strategies that will present a more inclusive narrative of American art, including the often-overlooked contributions of Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous and women artists.
“This reinstallation project will invite essential conversations around inclusion and diversity now central to both public discourse and the daily work of arts organizations,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “It will shed new light on American artists whose voices will be more prominent in conversations about American art. I am delighted to partner with Annabelle Selldorf, along with our curatorial and interpretation teams, to refocus and revitalize our signature galleries and public spaces to showcase a multiplicity of perspectives and experiences and to better serve our ever-growing audiences.”
Selldorf Architects began creating a concept and design master plan in 2020. The design plan highlights the grandeur of the historical architecture while creating new display spaces, including a dedicated gallery for time-based media that will debut with a major video installation, “Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts” (2012) by Carrie Mae Weems.
“It has been a pleasure to work with SAAM leadership and staff on reimagining their galleries and public spaces,” said Annabelle Selldorf, FAIA, principal of Selldorf Architects. “While respecting the historic architecture, our new gallery designs allow the museum to tell more diverse stories from the collection making the visitor experience more welcoming, inclusive and impactful.”
Selldorf Architects is a 70-person architectural design firm founded in New York City in 1988. The firm has expertise in cultural and art-related projects, having designed museums, galleries, artists’ studios and collectors’ homes.
Work will be done in several phases while the museum’s main building remains open to the public. The first phase of the project encompasses the museum’s galleries for modern and contemporary art on the third floor, which closed temporarily in 2021 and are expected to reopen in September. These galleries will feature recent acquisitions by Tiffany Chung, Jeffrey Gibson, Miguel Luciano, Kay WalkingStick, Alison Saar, Hank Willis Thomas and Weems, among others, installed alongside iconic works from the collection such as Jenny Holzer’s “For SAAM,” Kerry James Marshall’s “Sob, Sob,” Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” and Mickalene Thomas’ “Portrait of Mnonja.” Selldorf Architects’ new scheme includes the renovation of 20,000 square feet of gallery space that creates larger and uninterrupted expanses of wall for the display of art while maintaining the integrity of the historic fabric of the building.
The redesign of the galleries and the installation and interpretive plan is funded entirely through private support. The museum has raised more than $9 million to date for the project, with early contributions from members of the museum’s advisory board, the Henry Luce Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
The museum is currently engaged in a parallel project to upgrade the gallery lighting throughout its main building. The upgrades will provide a more energy-efficient and state-of-the-art system. Funding for the $13.7 million lighting capital project is provided by the federal government.