Several months after announcing that the joint team of SOM and Selldorf Architects will oversee the most significant interior revitalization project undertaken at the Hirshhorn Museum in its nearly half-century-long existence, the Smithsonian Institution has revealed that the latter firm has also been tapped to lead a major overhaul of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).
The Gordon Bunshaft–designed Hirshhorn, where a contentious redesign of its Modernist sculpture garden is now underway following a facade restoration project, is one of several prominent Smithsonian museums lining the National Mall. SAAM, on the other hand, is located nearly a mile north of the Mall and is one of two museums—the other being the National Portrait Gallery—located within the sprawling old Patent Office Building in Washington’s D.C.’s Chinatown. Both museums were closed for several years while their shared Greek Revival–style landmark home underwent extensive renovations; both reopened in 2006 as a joint facility known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
The project, a revitalization of SAAM’s permanent collection galleries and key public spaces, marks the first comprehensive reinstallation of the museum’s exhibition and interpretation spaces in the nearly two decades since the larger $283 million renovation of the Patent Office Building was completed. The news of Selldorf Architects’ engagement comes three years after the New York–based firm first began work on a concept and master plan. Per the Smithsonian, the design plan “highlights the grandeur of the historical architecture while creating new display spaces” such as a dedicated gallery for time-based media that will open with a 2012 video installation by Carrie Mae Weems entitled Lincoln, Lonnie and Me - A Story in 5 Parts.
The redesign, the Smithsonian said, will “set the stage for a new vision of American art at the nation’s flagship collection, showcasing newly acquired works, foregrounding new voices, and adding interpretation strategies that will present a more inclusive narrative of American art, including the often-overlooked contributions of Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous and women artists.”
“While respecting the historic architecture, our new gallery designs allow the museum to tell more diverse stories from the collection making the visitor experience more welcoming, inclusive and impactful,” added Annabelle Selldorf, founding principal of Selldorf Architects, in a statement.
Selldorf recently spoke with RECORD editor-in-chief Josephine Minutillo about several other high-profile museum projects helmed by her namesake firm, including those, both proposed and completed, that have proven controversial.
Work at SAAM will take place in several stages, enabling the museum to remain open to the public while work is underway. The first phase, expected to reach completion in September of this year, will focus on renovating 20,000 square feet of third-floor gallery space dedicated to contemporary and modern art. In parallel with Selldorf Architects’ reimagining of its galleries and public spaces, the museum, the nation’s flagship museum for American art and craft, is also undergoing a $13.5 million lighting refresh funded by the federal government. In addition to its main building, SAAM also comprises a craft-dedicated branch location, the Renwick Gallery.