Finding a New Definition of American Art Today

Finding a New Definition of American Art Today

A recent panel at Sotheby’s, “Expanding Access to American Art,” debated the expanding definition of what might constitute “American Art” – and who is its audience.
A recent panel at Sotheby’s, “Expanding Access to American Art,” debated the expanding definition of what might constitute “American Art” – and who is its audience.

T he definition of American art can change, depending on who you ask. But for Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, this fluidity opens up a wealth of possibility and potential in their ongoing work presenting material culture from across the United States.

“We have intentionally not defined American art, and I hope we keep it that way,” said Alice Walton, the museum’s founder, during a recent panel discussion at Sotheby’s. “It may change over time as our relationship to our neighbors changes and our organization becomes more integrated.”

The panel “Expanding Access to American Art,” which was held at Sotheby’s New York on 15 November, saw leaders of American museums and foundations convene with market experts and artists to discuss new approaches to collecting and exhibiting art produced in the United States. At the heart of the debate, a fundamental question emerged: What constitutes American art? It’s a pressing query that inevitably leads to asking what it means to be American.

The traditional boundaries of American art are blurry: Many canonical artists, such as John Singer Sargent, have as much of a claim to European as American heritage. Those who worked in the mid-to-late 20th century tend to be collected by modern and contemporary art institutions, where they’re contextualized within a global network of cultural exchange. Then there’s also the fact that “American” artists are usually defined as working in the United States and not the Americas more broadly – excluding artists from Central and South America and the Caribbean. Perhaps most egregiously, most museums and art institutions have only recently begun to recognize Indigenous artists as being integral to art-making in a region shaped, over many centuries, by European colonialism and its legacies.

Hank Willis Thomas cited Alfredo Jaar’s A Logo for America (1987) as a provocation to redefine “American art.”
“The imaginary borders that we create around states and nations don’t necessarily serve us in telling the history of America.”
- Hank Willis Thomas

At Sotheby’s, the panelists agreed that greater access to art can only lead to more nuanced and fruitful readings of American history. Walton started Art Bridges Foundation to encourage museums nationwide to bring artworks out of storage and loan them to partner institutions around the country, opening them up to broader audiences and facilitating new dialogues. “It’s not enough just to move the works of art,” said Paul R. Provost, the organization’s CEO. “Once they’re in place, you’ve got to activate them and use that activation to bring in audiences that otherwise wouldn’t come in and see those works.”

The Newark Museum of Art is one of dozens of lending partners. With insufficient exhibition space to display the 150,000 artworks in the museum’s collection, Director and CEO Linda Harrison sees immense value in getting artworks out of storage and on the road. But there are fundamental issues to be faced within some collections themselves, as Harrison noted. She spoke of the irony in numerous American art collections failing to represent their local communities and instead reinforcing national mythologies or idealized versions of complex histories.

“When you walk into our Hudson River School galleries, it was formerly very serene,” said Harrison. “But there was another story happening.” Today, the museum’s galleries include work by the artist Saya Woolfalk, whose Self Portrait (Words by Sojourner Truth), 2021, adds another dimension to the Edenic landscapes that helped inspire Manifest Destiny.

From left: Derek Blasberg (Journalist and Panel Moderator), Alice Walton (Founder, Crystal Bridges & Art Bridges Foundation), Paul R. Provost (CEO, Art Bridges Foundation), Linda Harrison (Director and CEO, The Newark Museum of Art), Charles F. Stewart (CEO, Sotheby’s), Hank Willis Thomas (Artist and Co-Founder, For Freedoms)

Such “disruptions,” as Harrison termed them, are increasingly common. Artists such as Fred Wilson and Andrea Fraser are renowned for challenging institutional conventions, while major museums from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to The Museum of Modern Art have introduced regular interventions and reevaluations of their collections. Common to all of these approaches is the political notion that presentations of art should reflect cultural diversity and be cautious of presenting living histories as static and settled. When artist Hank Willis Thomas recently toured the Early American Art Galleries at Crystal Bridges, he was encouraged by seeing artists from both sides of the present US southern border.

“I was excited to see the term ‘American’ complicated in a way that actually simplifies things for me,” he said. “The categorizations that we often use don’t really serve us.”

Sotheby’s CEO Charles Stewart agreed, saying: “It’s about more than just art – it’s about community and connection.” The best art collections follow the connective threads between disparate artistic communities, reflecting the reality of cultural transmission – instead of perpetuating staid institutional boundaries. And with collectors increasingly acquiring works across categories, the market is moving to embrace this pluralistic vision, a trend that partially informed Sotheby’s decision to include significant works of American art in its marquee auctions last May.

“There were almost religious distinctions between museums and galleries and artists and dealers and advisors,” said Stewart. “That’s changed now. This idea of access to art which informs your mission – that’s our mission too.”

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