A key question at the heart of American Art: The Stories We Carry is, “who determines what American art is, and how?” Two years ago, the museum embarked on this project not only to transform its American art galleries, but also to deepen its commitment to inclusive exhibition-planning practices. SAM opened up its collection, history, and process to three artists, four emerging museum professionals, and 11 advisors from the Seattle community in a comprehensive collaboration with SAM curators and staff to create an installation that reflects and responds to community knowledge. The project was led by Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, in partnership with Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art. Their work, and that of all the project participants, has initiated a groundbreaking shared-authorship model for interrogating and recontextualizing SAM’s collections that will impact the future of the entire institution.
Dr. Theresa Papanikolas joined SAM as its Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art in January 2019 with the goal of reimagining the museum’s American art galleries with new and challenging narratives that would connect to the contemporary moment. In her short time at SAM she has curated several exhibitions including Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations (2020), Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle (2021), and Northwest Modernism: Four Japanese Americans (2021–22). She led this project in collaboration with Dr. Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art, who has been at SAM since 2001, developing meaningful connections with Native artists and communities in the Puget Sound region and curating many major exhibitions.
Together, they envisioned a reinstallation that marks several firsts: connecting SAM’s American art galleries with their long-adjacent galleries of Native American art and Modern and Contemporary art, inviting contemporary artists to engage with collection works from throughout the Western world, and guiding a shared-authorship model for exhibition planning alongside community experts and emerging museum professionals.
For this project, SAM collaborated with three contemporary artists to engage with SAM’s historical American art collection and create a response based on their own practices and perspectives. Working closely with SAM curators, the artists reviewed objects in the American art and Native American art collections, offered new interpretations, and shared their regional and cultural knowledge. Wendy Red Star and Nicholas Galanin embarked on exciting new commissions created especially for the reinstallation; Red Star’s lightbox portrait Áakiiwilaxpaake (People Of The Earth), 2022, welcomes visitors to the reinstalled galleries, and Galanin’s neon installation will debut in spring 2023. Inye Wokoma was inspired to curate a gallery of works from SAM’s collection, offering a distinctive new framework for interpreting the works. Working collaboratively with guest artists and curators has long been a practice at SAM, but this marks the first time the museum has taken this approach with its collections from the Western world.
Nicholas Galanin is a multidisciplinary artist based in Sitka, Alaska. His work engages past, present and future to expose intentionally obscured collective memory and barriers to the acquisition of knowledge.
Wendy Red Star
Wendy Red Star is a Portland-based multidisciplinary artist working primarily in photography as well as sculpture, video, fiber arts, and performance. Her work operates at the intersections of traditional Native American culture and colonialist histories and modes of representation. She was the 2016 winner of SAM’s Betty Bowen Award.
Inye Wokoma is a Seattle-based visual artist, filmmaker, photographer, and community organizer. He is a founder of Wa Na Wari, a center for Black art and culture in Seattle’s Central District.
SAM has a history of community engagement going back decades. In recent years, the museum has convened paid advisory committees for its artistic and educational programs, including for the Seattle Asian Art Museum reinstallation project that debuted in February 2020. For American Art: The Stories We Carry, SAM invited a group of advisors, listed here, to meet seven times over 15 months, an unprecedented level of engagement in a single project. These advisors met with SAM curators and staff, bringing their own expertise and experiences on the project and providing critical input on the artwork selection, interpretative strategies, outreach, and programming. Their participation had profound impacts on all these aspects of the project and more, helping to shape the future of how SAM empowers community perspectives in exhibition planning.
This project enabled SAM to further its efforts to contribute to an equitable and dynamic professional pipeline of museum leaders, launching four new paid internships in the curatorial and conservation departments—two career paths in the field that are particularly lacking in equitable representation by people of color. Over the course of 15 months, each department welcomed two interns: an intensive 21-month internship for students at the graduate level and 10-week internships for emerging leaders that builds on SAM’s Emerging Arts Leader (EAL) internship model.
The curatorial interns conducted research, participated in checklist development, wrote interpretive texts, and wrote and presented on the reinstallation to colleagues and the public. The conservation interns collaborated with department experts on examining and treating artwork, display needs, framing and archival work, and presenting work to professional and public audiences. All of these emerging professionals provided critical perspectives on the project’s development, making an impact on the museum’s broader work.
Emerging Museum Professional, Conservation
Caitlyn Fong is a pre-program conservator who grew up in Malaysia. Her passion for conservation stems from her interest in understanding materials and her belief that museums can be meaningful platforms for community building. Fong has a B.A. in chemistry with a minor in studio art from Messiah University.
Emerging Arts Leader, American Art
Moe’Neyah Holland is a senior at the University of Washington studying art history with a focus in contemporary art. For American Art: The Stories We Carry, Holland wrote in-gallery labels for three artworks. Holland worked with SAM curator Theresa Papanikolas on creating cohesion within the installation and elevating diverse identities in portraiture for a more inclusive visitor experience.
Emerging Museum Professional, American Art
A member of the Seneca Nation, Kari Karsten holds an M.A. in Museology from the University of Washington and a B.S. in communications and rhetorical studies with a minor in visual culture from Syracuse University. She has worked at the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, Mount Rainier Curatorial Department, ArtRage Gallery, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. As an Indigenous individual, her work centers on decolonization practices and providing well-rounded representations of marginalized communities within museum settings.
Emerging Arts Leader, Conservation
Rosa Sittig-Bell is an art history student at the University of Washington. As a conservation intern at SAM, Sittig-Bell has worked with SAM conservators to treat art objects ranging from outdoor sculpture to American art. Rosa also works as an arts and culture writer for The Daily. She is graduating in the fall and working towards admission into a graduate program for art conservation.
The Mellon Foundation Grant is awarded and the project can go forward. A second grant, from the Terra Foundation for American Art is approved the following March.
Conversations with artists Nicholas Galanin, Wendy Red Star, and Inye Wokoma begin; over the next months, they will visit the existing galleries and discuss their commissions or curation with the curators.
First meeting with Advisory Circle; over the next 15 months, the 10 community members will meet with SAM staff six more times to provide critical expertise and feedback on the project, including interpretation, outreach, and programs.
The first Emerging Museum Professional Interns begin work; over the course of the project, four paid interns from underrepresented groups in the museum field will take part in either intensive 21-month internships for students at the graduate level or in 10-week internships in SAM’s Emerging Arts Leader (EAL) internship program in the curatorial and conservation departments.
Galleries are deinstalled and construction begins on new gallery spaces.
Wendy Red Star visits Seattle to conduct portrait sessions with Native women and children that will become part of her commissioned work, Áakiiwilaxpaake (People Of The Earth), 2022.
Nicholas Galanin visits Seattle and conducts a SAM Instagram takeover.
Tickets go on sale for American Art: The Stories We Carry.
Installation of the galleries begins.
Reinstalled galleries, including new commission by Wendy Red Star and guest-curated gallery by Inye Wokoma, debut to the public.
New commission by Nicholas Galanin goes on view.