SAM plans more inclusive presentation of American art

A transformation is beginning at the Seattle Art Museum to overhaul the American art galleries and make them more inclusive.

Inye Wokoma is a visual artist who grew up in Seattle.

He said something in the galleries of American art on the third floor is missing.

“I include myself in audiences that have not been responsive to the way the works have been presented,” he said.

Wokoma is one of three artists helping Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick curator of American art, rethink how the permanent American art collection is presented.

“Seattle is a very diverse place, but this space, I have to say, is a very white space,” Papanikolas said. “It’s dominated by a European narrative. One of those questions we’re asking is how do we break that down, how do we decolonize the museum?”

It’s a question museums around the country are now asking.

SAM recently acquired an 1887 painting of the Columbia River by African American artist Grafton Tyler Brown.

But mostly, the curating team will dig through the museum’s existing collection from the late 18th century to World War II.

“What’s hiding down in storage that we want to bring to light; what are the themes that we can tease out of the collections?”

Wokoma already finds a theme in a marquee painting, Albert Bierstadt’s “Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast.”

“There’s a hypermystical quality to this painting,” Wokoma said.

He explained the 1870 painting went on tour, promoting a land of economic bounty.

Wokoma sees a connection with another piece in the collection, the elevator grille from the Chicago Stock Exchange.

“So you have a place where it was the seat of that speculation, and you have a place that evokes the speculative possibilities of what’s out there. And for me, that’s a narrative framing that’s very interesting,” Wokoma said.

The three artists will create new works in response to the American collection.

A team of people will figure out how to display the art, add more voices to interpretations and draw connections to other galleries, especially the Native American art gallery.

“I can’t see us removing pieces. I can see us reinterpreting pieces, interrogating them, really saying why they’re problematic, why this is a history that needs to be looked at,” Papanikolas said.

Funded primarily by a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the new galleries will open in October 2022, offering a fresh and more inclusive take on the canon of American art.