Director’s Letter: Reflection, Dialogue, and Connection

SAAM’s Director on the new year ahead

 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 22, 2024
A photograph of a woman standing next to an artwork

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

Each January, I choose key words to help guide me through the next twelve months. For 2024, I chose the words reflection, dialogue, and connection as my mantra. For me, these words speak to opportunities that arise when we look at art and let those moments enter our consciousness and hearts. They also carry a sense of being together. Art inspires and certainly invites reflection of ourselves and others and the world around us. Art sparks and even demands dialogue among viewers, makers, and scholars. Art offers connection to individuals and communities. And, most importantly, art offers a sense of wonder, an ideal state for reflection, dialogue, and connection. 

These words are also embedded in SAAM’s newly crafted mission and vision statements, created as part of a new strategic plan for the museum that will guide us for the next five years. You can find these statements on our website at AmericanArt.si.edu/about

A photograph of a person standing in front of an artwork. She is wearing earbuds and holding her phone up to the work.

Photo by Mary Tait

I am particularly excited by our ongoing collaboration with the digital firm Smartify to create a series of audio tours, four to date that deepen the visitor experience, both in our galleries and online. Smartify is trusted by over 700 leading art museums around the world to connect people with arts and culture using personal mobile devices. SAAM was the first museum to debut a new feature from Smartify that uses AI to allow visitors to create free customized tours tailored to personal interests and for a specific duration of time by answering a couple of simple questions. It has transformed how visitors can experience SAAM’s collections.

These tours were created to enhance new exhibitions and elucidate key works from SAAM’s permanent collection. American Voices and Visions features more than a dozen artists talking about what inspired their work on view in SAAM’s newly opened modern and contemporary galleries. We also added different voices, from Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III speaking about the amazing history of SAAM’s historic main building to influential contemporary artists Kay WalkingStick and Alison Saar. Our newest offering that highlights works in the collection by African American artists debuts next month. Tours are available in English, Spanish, American Sign Language, and Descriptive Audio for visitors with low and impaired vision.  

This spring we bring three thought-provoking exhibitions to our galleries, all organized by SAAM and drawn from our stellar collections. An exhibition that has had five national stops arrives at SAAM on March 8, Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice, offers bold portraits of African American heroes from all walks of life. Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women explores the creative practice of Amish quilters in the United States through the superb collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, recently donated to SAAM. Finally, Subversive, Skilled, Sublime: Fiber Art by Women presents an insightful look at how these artists drew on personal experiences and intergenerational skills to transform humble threads into resonant and intricate artworks. 

As the nation’s flagship museum dedicated to American art and craft, SAAM has a crucial role to play in the powerful vision expressed by Smithsonian Secretary Bunch as “the place Americans look to understand themselves, their history, and their world.” And artists help us see the world differently. We believe art can be a tool to teach us how to think about where we come from and how to create a more just future for all going forward.  

As the world swirls around us, SAAM can be a refuge for reflection, dialogue, and connection.  

See you in the galleries and online.  

Stephanie Stebich, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director

 

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