Ideas about the American West, both in popular culture and in commonly accepted historical narratives, are often based on a past that never was, and fail to take into account important events that actually occurred. The exhibition Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea examines the perspectives of 48 modern and contemporary artists who offer a broader and more inclusive view of this region, which too often has been dominated by romanticized myths and Euro-American historical accounts.
This exhibition presents an opportunity to examine previous misconceptions, question racist clichés, and highlight the multiple communities and histories that continue to form this iconic region of the United States. Working in various media, from painting and sculpture to photography and mixed media, the artists featured bring a nuanced and multifaceted history to light. Many Wests highlights many voices—including artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ — who stake a claim in the American West.
The exhibition’s three sections — Caretakers, Memory Makers, and Boundary Breakers — highlight the various ways artists explode singular conceptions of the American West, often demonstrating the resilience of marginalized communities who survived against the odds. The modern and contemporary artists featured in Many Wests reveal that “the West” has always been a place of multiple stories, experiences, and cultures.
Caretakers examines how artists can redefine what it means to take care of themselves, their communities, and their futures. Featured artists include Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath Modoc), Awa Tsireh/Alfonso Roybal (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Patrick Nagatani, and Marie Watt (Seneca). Through their work, these artists demonstrate a commitment to the stewardship of land, history, language, and culture. They draw upon personal narratives, communal ties, and collective experience in the American West to honor the past and shape legacies for generations to come.
Memory Makers explores how artists act as transmitters of cultural memory as they bring forth neglected histories of the West through their work. Featured artists include Jacob Lawrence, Roger Shimomura, Christina Fernandez, and others who go beyond the familiar accounts of European settlers and bring to light lived histories and identities that are essential to a truthful history.
Boundary Breakers highlights artists that unsettle common beliefs that inform the popular understanding of the American West. Their representations break away from myths and assert their continued presence despite centuries of omission and erasure by mainstream culture. They question simplified notions of identity, affirm their lived experiences, and refute romanticized imagery. Featured artists include Angela Ellsworth, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow), and Angel Rodríguez-Díaz.
Many Wests features artwork from the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and four partner museums located in some of the fastest-growing cities and states in the western region of the United States. It is the culmination of a multi-year, joint curatorial initiative made possible by the Art Bridges Foundation. The collaborating partner museums are the Boise Art Museum in Idaho; the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon; the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City; and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington.
This exhibition is organized by Amy Chaloupka, curator of art at the Whatcom Museum; Melanie Fales, executive director/CEO of the Boise Art Museum; Danielle Knapp, the McCosh Curator at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art; Whitney Tassie, senior curator and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts; and E. Carmen Ramos, former curator of Latinx Art, and Art Bridges Initiative Project Director, with Anne Hyland, the Art Bridges Initiative curatorial coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the Art Bridges Initiative.