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The Seattle Art Museum's American galleries, described by their curator as presenting a limited view of art history Photo by Tim Aguero

Revising a mostly white ‘greatest hits’ narrative, Seattle Art Museum will overhaul its American art galleries
By Nancy Kenney
June 16th, 2021

Determined to recast a staid narrative, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) announced today that it plans to transform its American art galleries with the aid of three hand-picked US artists and ten experts from the local community in a two-year project.

Relying on $1m from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, $75,000 from the Terra Foundation of American Art and other support, the museum will embrace a “shared authorship model” that incorporates people of colour and other underrepresented voices, from Native Americans to African Americans to Asian Americans to regional artists in the US Northwest, in a reframing of national and local art history.

Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s curator of American art, is working with the museum’s curator of Native American art, Barbara Brotherton, to drum up ideas and generate enlightening connections between the two collections they oversee, for joint displays as well as exhibitions. The museum has a rich collection of Northwest Coast Native American art

“We’re trying to decentre whiteness and show something that more truly reflects America and its history,” Papanikolas says. “The way the [American] galleries are organised now is a greatest-hits presentation very much focused on masterworks” by white artists from the 1600s to 2000s, she notes, including oil paintings, works on paper, sculptures and the decorative arts. “It’s very traditional and focused on a march through history that is ahistorical.”

Largely left out of this “very canon-focused presentation,” she says, are African Americans, the reality of slavery, the history of labour and the extraction of resources in the US. “We want to tell the stories of the hidden histories,” the curator says.

This summer, Papanikolas will begin dissecting the stories told in the museum’s galleries and through the breadth of its collection with Nicholas Galanin, a Tlingit and Unanga ̂x multi- disciplinary artist and musician from Sitka, Alaska; the multimedia artist Wendy Red Star, a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe based in Portland, Oregon; and Inye Wokoma, a Seattle visual artist, filmmaker and community artist who is a founder of Wa Na Wari, a local centre for Black art and culture.

“We’re just getting started,” the curator says. “They will be full participants in how we decide to display most of the collection. We’ll walk through the galleries with them, take them into storage [areas], and see where we go.” SAM’s American collection numbers over 2,500 objects, of which a minute fraction are on display. Its galleries were last reinstalled in 2007.

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