Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum: The Intersection of Art, Science, and Bureaucracy

Lois Marie Fink
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
    Book Description:

    Dedicated to the art of the United States, the Smithsonian American Art Museum contains works by more than 7,000 artists and is widely regarded as an invaluable resource for the study and preservation of the nation's cultural heritage. But as Lois Marie Fink shows in this probing narrative, the history of the museum is hardly one of steady progress. Instead, it reads like a nineteenthcentury melodrama, replete with villains and heroes, destruction by fire, dashed hopes, and periods of subsistence survival—all leading eventually to a happy ending. Originating as the art gallery stipulated in the 1846 founding legislation of the Smithsonian, the museum developed within an institution that was essentially controlled by scientists. In its early years, the museum's holdings included a diverse selection of art and artifacts, mostly donated from private collections. Government support varied in response to shifting attitudes of officials and the public toward American art, ranging from avid admiration at the turn of the twentieth century to a tepid response and an almost total withdrawal of funding a generation later in favor of European masterworks. For decades the museum followed scientific organizational principles in exhibitions and collection strategies. Far into the twentieth century, accessions remained tied to nineteenthcentury figurative art, reflecting the strength and influence of anthropology and biological sciences at the Smithsonian. A key breakthrough for modern art came in 1964 with the appointment of Smithsonian secretary Dillon Ripley, a scientist who strongly promoted the art side of the institution. With renewed support for expanding the collection and programs, the museum moved in 1968 to its present location in the Patent Office Building. In recounting the history of the museum from 1846 to 1980, Fink unravels the various levels of institutional authority, power, governance, and bureaucracy and shows how people at each level influenced the fortunes of the collection. She also places changing concepts of art and museum practice in the context of national ideals and Washington realities.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-089-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xx)

    A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum: The Intersection of Art, Science, and Bureaucracyfollows the nation’s first art collection from its origins in private and government holdings of the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century. My aim is to convey a sense of the historic continuity of the museum and its identity as a collection that has developed for over 150 years within the context of national ideals and Washington realities. Like the museum itself, this book is intended for the general public as well as for scholars of art history and American studies.

    Histories of art...

    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. 1 Art as Knowledge
    (pp. 1-30)

    Within a year after the nation’s political center had moved to Washington—when roads were still little more than paths through the trees, government buildings stood half-built, private housing was grossly inadequate, and no established water or sewage system existed—one resident declared that what the city really needed was a museum. “Nothing would tend more to benefit this city and the nation at large than that the seat of the general government should be in the depository of the arts and sciences,” insisted this anonymous writer, who speculated on turning the president’s house “into a National Museum, where, as...

  8. 2 Exhibiting the Evolution of Culture
    (pp. 31-53)

    Two major innovations in theory and practice changed the museum experience of viewers in the late nineteenth century—and still determine our own in the twenty-first. Education became a primary aim, and objects on exhibition began to be presented systematically. A shift toward reaching a popular audience joined other nationwide movements in public education: establishing tax-supported public schools and universities in many states; opening higher education to women; and introducing new theories and reforms by American and European educators.

    Officials of earlier collections had stated the intent of reaching out to lay visitors, but not until this period was that...

  9. 3 Defining Art for the Nation in Two National Galleries
    (pp. 54-93)

    In Washington the title “the National Gallery of Art” was legally conferred upon two collections: the Smithsonian’s in 1906, and Andrew W. Mellon’s in 1937. Founded a generation apart through very different circumstances, the two institutions evoked contrasting expectations of their potential roles in the nation’s cultural life.

    When the Smithsonian’s art collection received this title, officials and interested citizens believed without question that a national gallery should properly focus on the nation’s art. At this time American artists stood at the peak of their recognition at home and abroad. Throughout the previous three decades they had gained renown at...

  10. 4 Rejecting Modern Art for Washington, 1930s–1960s
    (pp. 94-123)

    On March 15, 1937—in the same month that Congress accepted the Mellon gift—a resolution was introduced in the House by Representative Kent E. Keller, a Democrat from Illinois, to provide for construction of the long-awaited housing for the Smithsonian’s art gallery. The possibility of a building—at last—for the nation’s first art collection as it began its history under the title National Collection of Fine Arts (NCFA) renewed hope for its mission to promote past and current American art in all its modes. Stating the name of the proposed structure as the “Smithsonian Gallery of Art,” the...

  11. 5 Opening a New Era for Art at the Smithsonian, 1960s–1980
    (pp. 124-166)

    In spite of the battery of shocks delivered by events of the 1960s—a divisive war in an unknown land, riots and confrontations at home, accelerated struggles for civil rights, political assassinations, earthlings in space with the incredible goal of landing on the moon—those years were propitious for the rebirth of the National Collection of Fine Arts. Through the agitation and ferment a renewing quest emerged: an examination of national values, new perspectives on the nation’s history, curiosity and interest in the nation’s art. At this favorable moment for NCFA, giant strides forward took place with the help of...

    (pp. 167-168)

    Washington residents of the early 1800s who first gathered the objects that became part of the Smithsonian would marvel at the displays of art, history, and science that today represent the national collections. Yet amid bewildering differences from their own time, they would be able to recognize a basic feature as unchanged: the tremendous importance attached to museums. Like the founders of the capital city, our generation reveres museums as essential cultural institutions. In Washington and throughout the country, museums continue to proliferate and attract crowds of visitors. Museum architecture is consistently among the most innovative as compared with that...

    (pp. 169-170)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 171-200)
    (pp. 201-216)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 217-220)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-223)