Long-awaited gallery reinstallations at the Smithsonian American Art Museum are the latest addition to D.C.’s growing status as a renowned destination for contemporary art.
In the dining room of a modest house in Northwest D.C.—so small of a space that he could only unroll a single canvas at a time— the late Morris Louis created Beta Upsilon, a recently conserved and majestically scaled artwork that has returned to public view for the first time in thirty-plus years at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).
On a brisk Tuesday afternoon, and merely miles away from his D.C. home, Melissa Ho, SAAM’s Curator of 20th-Century Art, details Louis’ creative process while she previews a room titled “DC Color Abstraction,” dedicated to select painters comprising an abstract art movement known today as the Washington Color School. The room is a part of larger reinstallation to SAAM’s third-floor modern and contemporary art galleries, marking the first milestone in American Voices and Visions—a multi-year initiative to comprehensively reinstall the museum’s permanent collection by the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026.
With the initial phase of American Voices and Visions totaling three-plus years in the making, SAAM’s reinstallation add to recent developments across the broader D.C. metro area’s contemporary art scene, including the continued expansion of the Glenstone Museum and opening of the Rubbell Museum DC last October.
What gives D.C. an edge relative to established contemporary hubs like New York and Los Angeles? “Artists here have unique access to historical collections,” Ho tells District Fray. “While D.C. is not as big of a contemporary destination, you’re in a place with thinkers and creators across a lot of different fields, including policy, journalism, and academia.” Browsing through the reinstalled galleries, these influences certainly show in the works of artists with D.C. ties.
Unveiling to the public on September 22, the initial milestone draws on the museum’s established strengths, like its impressive collection of works by Black and self-taught artists across multifaceted artistic media and practices since the 1940s. As per the official press release, “52% of the works on view are by artists of color and 42% by women,” thus expanding SAAM’s conceptualization of American art, and more fully reflecting the diversity of perspectives, geographies and identities that define it.
Among SAAM’s reinstallations are works by future-oriented and beloved Washington Color Field artist, Alma Thomas. Born in the Jim Crow South, but raised in Washington, D.C., Thomas is featured in both American Voices and Visions and Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas, the latter of which is curated by Ho and currently on view through June 2nd, 2024.
Given that SAAM has the largest public holdings of Thomas’s artworks, Ho says the museum feels “a special responsibility to make [her] work available to audiences in D.C. and the nation at large.” And while Composing Color is set to go on a national tour after its initial showing at SAAM, several works will be held back as the exhibition travels, so that “[SAAM] can always have representation of Thomas in [its] galleries” for local and visiting museum goers alike to enjoy.
American Voices and Visions ultimately aims to tell a more comprehensive national story through its reimagined permanent collection. However, by uplifting local artists and movements in its reinstallations and exhibitions like Composing Color, D.C. is intentionally interwoven into the fabric of the nation’s prized flagship art museum.
See D.C. Through Alma Thomas’s Eyes
Composing Color draws on SAAM’s extensive holdings of Thomas’s works, and is organized by the three key themes of Space, Earth and Music. Keep reading for a mini scavenger hunt and upcoming events to dive deeper into her world.
- Can you spot some of Thomas’s favorite green spaces around D.C. on the wall text?
- Only two works in Composing Color are loaned from other D.C.-based institutions. Where are they from?
- A similar, larger rendition of an artwork featured in Composing Color exists in the American Voices and Visions. Which organizing theme unites these works?
Join conservators in conversation at SAAM on October 13 at 5:30 p.m. at “Converse with a Conservator: Alma Thomas.” The event is free, but you are encouraged to register here.
Smithsonian American Art Museum: 8th and G St. NW, DC; americanart.si.edu // @americanart
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