The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation’s first collection of American art, and one of the largest and most expansive collections in the world. Three centuries of American art can be found throughout the museum’s two locations. The Renwick Gallery (found on Pennsylvania Avenue & 17th Street NW) closed in December 2013 for renovations, but numerous collections and exhibits can still be found at the museum’s other location at 8th and F Streets NW. This main building, which has been deemed a National Historic Landmark, has been remarkably renovated and features the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, a quiet place to work or relax with free Wi-Fi and a café featuring sandwiches, salads, coffee and beer.The building also houses another Smithsonian museum, the National Portrait Gallery, located on the opposite side.
Thousands of artists are represented in the museum’s collections, with a standout being the Luce Foundation Center, the first fully visible art storage center in DC. More than 3,300 works are housed there. According to the Smithsonian Institution, the American Art Museum receives roughly one million visitors per year.
Through four floors, a mezzanine and a courtyard, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is as encompassing a museum experience as one can find. You can journey through America’s artistic development by viewing paintings from the 17th & 18th centuries, works primarily from the colonies of New Spain and New England. Then make your way through the 19th Century art collection, which highlights the Western migration, impressionism and the Gilded Age.
You will encounter America’s most revered artists of each time period, as forms, styles and genres were developed and perfected. The 20th century saw progress in the realms of abstraction and realism, as visitors can see through the museum’s large collection of New Deal art and murals. Recently, the museum has vastly improved its contemporary art collection, so your trek through American art will bring you all the way to the present day. If you are looking for a more culturally-oriented perspective, collections do stem beyond eras: the museum has exhibits specifically dedicated to African American and Latino artists, as well as folk art.
If your march through the annals of American art history has you feeling both amazed and a bit tired, there is the Kogod Courtyard a short walk away. Here you can relax and gear your mind back toward the present via free wi-fi while chowing down on a sandwich or salad, or sipping on an espresso from the nearby cafe. Then it’s time to move on through the National Portrait Gallery, which is also a part of the same building!
The main building located at 8th and F Streets NW is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. December 25 is the only day of the year that the museum is closed. Admission is free.
There is limited metered street parking in the neighborhood of the museum, as well as several public garages. The museum is conveniently located in the middle of the Downtown/Penn Quarter/Chinatown area, so the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop (on the Red, Yellow and Green lines) is directly below it, making this the easiest way to reach the building. The DC Circulator services the neighborhood via the Georgetown-Union Station route, so a trip by bus is convenient as well.
There is no shortage of activities to be found near the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Verizon Center is a block away, so seeing a Washington Wizards or Capitals game is an option. Restaurants abound throughout the Downtown/Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood, including local favorites such as Zengo, Jaleo and Carmine’s. The National Mall, featuring the nation’s most renowned monuments and memorials, is also within walking distance.
Those wanting an even shorter commute can stroll across the Kogod Courtyard to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
- Located on the third floor of the building, Nam June Paik’s installation of the map of the United States includes 336 televisions.
- The Smithsonian’s collection of art was initially gathered before the Smithsonian Institution was established in 1846. Gifts from art organizations and private collections began as early as 1829.
- The first official individual donor to Smithsonian’s art collection was John Varden, whose European art collection was displayed in the same space as the Declaration of Independence when it was previously serving as the Patent Office Building in 1841.
- George Catlin’s “Indian Gallery,” which aims to depict the “manners and customs” of the tribes of the Plains in the 1830s, contains more than 400 paintings.
- Based on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original plans for the city of Washington, the site where the museum now stands was supposed to be the location of a “national nondenominational church or pantheon for the nation’s heroes.”
- Next to a window on the third floor, the initials "C.H.F" and the date "Aug. 8 1864" are carved into the wall. Since the building was once used as a Civil War infirmary, it is thought to be inscribed by a patient.