You probably grew up learning the history of how the West was won, but the exhibition Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea remixes, reimagines, and retells stories of how the West was not one. Examining the perspectives of 48 modern and contemporary artists who offer a broader and more inclusive view of this region, Many Wests has been on a compelling national tour to bring a more nuanced and multifaceted history to light. Now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this is the only chance to experience the exhibition east of the Rockies.
The featured artists, many of whom identify as Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and LGBTQ+, challenge previous misconceptions and question racist clichés that make up one of the United States’s most iconic regions, which too often has been dominated by romanticized myths and Euro-American historical accounts.
Their works address the past and present, revealing that “the West” has always been a place of multiple stories, experiences, and cultures. By collaborating with museum partners who are based in the American West, the exhibition highlights the voices of artists with deep ties to the region. This makes the exhibition especially meaningful. “In all of my works I feel like I am trying to be conscious of history, of our multiple histories, where they intersect and where they divide,” explained artist Rubén Trejo in 2001. “I am acutely aware of how language, quite literally, shapes who we are.”
Many Wests is the culmination of a multi-year Art Bridges Initiative organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. SAAM partnered with four museums located in some of the fastest-growing cities and states in the Western-region of the United States—the Boise Art Museum in Idaho; the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City; the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington. Many Wests brings together artworks from the permanent collections of all five museums.