Despite many trips to Washington DC, I had never been to the Smithsonian American Art Museum until this summer. It is not one of the museums along the National Mall, easily accessible from that central locale. It is a bit of a walk, but not far from there, and worth going to.
Here are three reasons why.
Some good art
I found some beautiful pieces here, such as Heinz Warneke’s Elegance - a sleek, ancient-Egyptianesque marble cat sculpture - and Thomas Moran’s vast, awe-inspiring romantic landscapes of the American West. I also enjoyed Mike Wilkin’s creative
depiction of the Preamble to the Constitution, created out of licence plates from all of the states (and DC), mounted on green vinyl, suggestive of our movement as a nation (progress? Wreckless careening?) There were several thought-provoking pieces that we encountered on the interesting free guided tour we took, one of which was Theaster Gates’ Ground Rules. Free Throw - a reworking of old basketball gym floors. Gates’ work alludes to a lack of order, of rules, and the resulting effects on society. The way he has redistributed the colored markings also reminds us a little of scores of Gregorian chant, calling up the link between music and sport. I also really liked the photographs of David Levinthal, in which he used miniature figures to create historical scenes. There is also the added benefit of being attached to the National Portrait Gallery (which I am not going into here), so it is like getting two museums for one.
It is always beneficial to sit before a piece of art for at least five minutes, looking closely at it. The longer you are willing to look, the more you will see.
Some lovely architectural spaces
The central atrium must be mentioned; it is gorgeous and very reminiscent of the atrium at the British Museum. The man who designed it came from London and must have drawn upon that influence. You can sit there for coffee from the cafe, enjoying the gardens and water features, in the light, airy, sunny space it provides. The galleries of the museum are also well designed. Funnily, the building began as the first patent office in the U.S.
Some great stuff for kids
The bookstore at this museum is full of worthwhile reading, art supplies, toys, and decor. You can find art history instruction such as Old Masters Rock: How to Look at Art with Your Children and art appreciation such as Seeing Things: A Kid’s Guide to Looking at Photographs.
There is also a kids’ area with a drawing light table, books to read, and a screen where videos you make right there are played continuously in a grid.
OPEN DAILY 11:30 A.M.–7:00 P.M.
Open 364 days a year. Closed December 25.
8th and F Streets, NW Washington, DC 20004