Director’s Letter: A Year of Stories

 Stephanie Stebich, SAAM's Margaret and Terry Stent Direction in the museum's Lincoln Gallery. Photo by Gene Young. 
Stephanie Stebich
The Margaret and Terry Stent Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery
January 26, 2023
A photograph of a woman standing in front of a black sculpture.

SAAM's Director, Stephanie Stebich, in front of Louise Nevelson's Sky Cathedral. Photo by Libby Weiler

Last year my watch words were grit, grace and joy. I still hold those dear while adding in this new year the words bold, awe and urgent. Those are the elements in which we undertake our public service work as the national museum dedicated to American art and craft. We are focused on sharing relevant stories of the American experience through art with—for example—our bold exhibitions, awe-inspiring education programs, and urgent conservation work.  

Two people stand in front of a pink neon sign that reads "This Present Moment Used to Be the Unimaginable Future"

Installation photography of This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World, Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2022, Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum; Photo by Albert Ting

We continue the celebration of the Renwick’s 50th anniversary begun last year as the special exhibition This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World remains on view until April 2. Part of our celebrations included recognizing the incredible vision of the Renwick’s founding director Lloyd Herman (1936-2023). His legacy lives on in the hundreds of scholars, artists, collectors and museum visitors who are inspired every day by the extraordinary creativity he championed. He envisioned a dynamic Renwick, recognized today as the flagship museum of American craft.

A woman with short hair stands with her ears on her headphones. They are woven with long fringe.

Lily Hope, Memorial Beats, 2021, thigh-spun merino and cedar bark with copper, headphones, and audio files, 16 x 4 x 10 in., The Hope Family Trust. Photo by Sydney Akagi.

Later this spring at the Renwick, we will present Sharing Honors and Burdens: Renwick Invitational 2023, opening May 26. This survey exhibition is curated by esteemed colleague Lara M. Evans (Cherokee Nation), director of the Research Center for Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It features artists Joe Feddersen (Arrow Lakes/Okanagan), Lily Hope (Tlingit), Ursala Hudson (Tlingit), Erica Lord (Athabaskan/Iñupiat), Geo Neptune (Passamaquoddy), and Maggie Thompson (Fond du Lac Ojibwe), offering a powerfully fresh and nuanced vision of Native American art. This exhibition represents our continued commitment to presenting more work by Native American artists, including a collecting initiative to purchase new works and the recent nationally touring exhibition Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists that was regrettably cut short in 2020 when we had to close our doors due to the COVID pandemic. 

Like you many of our plans were delayed by the impact of the COVID pandemic and some are being realized this year at last. The staff has worked incredibly hard and creatively to reshape our program. Our talented public programming team has mastered hybrid programming allowing for a rich onsite and online experience. Our beloved family days continue beginning with a celebration on January 28 of the Lunar New Year, presented with the People’s Republic of China in the United States, and the Korean Cultural Center of Washington, DC. I also recommend to you the upcoming February 22 lecture by independent scholar William Cross on Winslow Homer offered in partnership with Smithsonian Associates.  

Media - 1970.353.1-.116 - SAAM-1970.353.1-.116_9 - 127238

James Hampton, Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, ca. 1950-1964, mixed media, dimensions variable, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of anonymous donors, 1970.353.1-.116

This year, we are excited to add to our display space on the first floor of SAAM’s main building. The first project in this gallery, formerly the bookstore, will be conservation work on the elements of James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, an iconic installation from our self-taught art collection.  We anticipate giving all of our visitors a glimpse into the art and science of the conservation of this work with some public viewing days later this year. Stay tuned. Remember you can also go behind-the-scenes with a visit to the Lunder Conservation Center on the third floor with its glass walls to marvel at talents of our professional team in the frame studio as well as objects, paintings and works on paper labs.  

And while new initiatives are happening in our physical spaces, we are active online and have renamed our blog SAAM Stories. I hope you have a chance to look at the stories we’ve been sharing about conservation and education outreach and in-depth looks at art and artists. Our stories are who we are and how we like to introduce ourselves to you through our awe-inspiring collections.    

Thank you as always for your interest in all we do. See you in the galleries and online! 

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