SAAM Fellowships: Celebrating Fifty Years with Alex J. Taylor

  • For fifty years, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has fostered new scholarship through its preeminent fellowship program, the oldest and largest in the world for the study of American art.

    ALEX J. TAYLOR: For the field of American art history, getting this scholarship is a real mark of the quality of your work.

    The library collection here, the American Art and National Portrait Gallery Library, was like nothing else I’d been able to use before. For me, it was like a treasure trove of stuff that I’d never been able to access, and it really opened up new horizons for my work.

    I mean, one example that comes to mind from my time at SAAM is my work with a painting by James Rosenquist. When I was working in the Archives of American Art collection, I came across a document that made me think that maybe that picture had been altered by the artist at the request of the patron that had commissioned it. The Lunder Conservation institute were able to conduct infrared scans of the picture, and we were actually able to see the passage of the painting that had been altered in its early history.

    Maybe the most exciting thing about the research was that a couple of years later the museum reached out, and they asked to incorporate that new research into the wall label for the object in the museum. So I felt this was like this fabulous instance of my research kind of coming full circle and, really, the museum giving me something through its resources but hopefully me leaving something behind as well.

    The fellows office is an amazing place. I met a whole lot of really great friends there. These are the people with whom I’ve presented with at conferences, they've invited me to their scholarly events, I’ve invited them to mine. I’ve co-written articles with some of them. That sense of a community is really something very special.

    The field of American art history has gone in leaps and bounds over the past few decades. Almost everyone who has been part of those seismic shifts in the history of American art is connected to SAAM and to the fellowship program, so on that basis I think its impact has been extraordinary.