Art View

Smithsonian American Art Museum—One of the Nation’s Treasures

By Tricia Herban


We all know that the primary reason to visit a museum is to see the objects preserved and presented there and to learn about history and civilization in a new way. But in Washington, there is another reason as well. With its many free Smithsonian museums, Washington is completely set apart from sister cities on the East Coast such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston because of the free, accessible rest stops where the busy tourist and museum patron can take a moment.

One such Smithsonian gallery is the American Art Museum and the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. The American Art Museum is located right across from the Gallery Place Metro entrance. Living in Annapolis as I do, and frequenting The Shakespeare Theatre, I find the museum is the perfect rest stop upon arrival.  I can snag a last minute gift at the museum store, quench my thirst or appetite at the little snack bar and take in the newest exhibition.

From the exterior, the American Art Museum appears to be a traditional and very staid facility.  When you climb the steps and enter, a large information desk is readily at hand.  The shop and restrooms are equally available.  But then if you continue beyond the information desk, you can exit the building into the Kogod courtyard.

Constructed just a couple of years ago, the courtyard is magnificent.  This vast roofed space connects the back facades of the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Undulating glass and aluminum grids float above the building, creating a ceiling which captures the light in a uniquely organic way.  Below, polished black granite paves the ground, echoing the stone of the facades.

Large granite slab benches offer resting places for tired moms and frisky kids.  In this protected setting, beautiful green ficus and black olive trees flourish in white marble planters. And in the Summer, the ever so subtle water feature—sloping pavement covered with a thin film of moving water—delights as well.

The Courtyard Café, just inside the National Portrait Gallery offers sandwiches, salads and light fare at its cafeteria. Trays are available so diners can take their food out to the courtyard and eat at the metal tables and chairs flanking that area. The café serves from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

And now, what of the American Art Museum itself?  This institution is one of the world’s largest and most inclusive American art repositories, presenting over three centuries of American art from the Colonial period to the present. The country’s cultural history is revealed through historical images of landscape, architecture, machinery, technology and people.

Among the more than 7,000 artists in the collection are John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, Helen Frankenthaler, Christo, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Lee Friedlander, Roy Lichtenstein, Nam June Paik, Martin Puryear and Robert Rauschenberg.

Not a staid, conservative repository for art, but a vibrant setting for innovation and inspiration, the museum showcases the largest collection of New Deal art and masterpieces from the Gilded Age as well as pioneering collections of photography, modern folk art and work by African American and Latino artists.

Current exhibitions are: “The Art of Video Games,” which explores the first 40 years of this medium with a “focus of striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies.” Eighty games are represented as well as video interviews with developers and artists, large prints of in-game screen shots and historic game consoles. The new book, The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect accompanies the exhibit and is available in bookstores nationwide and the museum shop.  The exhibition is on view through Sept. 30, 2012. 

          “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond” presents painting, sculpture, prints and photographs by 43 black artists. The 100 works displayed are all part of the museum’s collection and include paintings by Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence and Lois Mailou Jones and photographs by Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Roland Freeman and Marilyn Nance.  A catalog is available from the museum store at

Additional long-term exhibits include: “Abstract Drawings” (through Jan. 6, 2013, and “Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection” (through Nov. 3, 2013).
8th and F Sts. NW

Hours: Daily 11:30 a.m.-7p.m.

Contact: 202.633.8490 or [email protected]

Admission: free

Getting there: Metro Gallery Place, Chinatown (Red, Yellow, and Green lines)


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