Jane Urheim

Washington D.C. is known for its numerous museums (most with free admission, to the joy of those on college budgets): the National Air and Space museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, and many more. And while most museums operate on 9am – 5pm schedule, which is not ideal for non-tourists, I had the chance to explore the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which are in the same building, after work last week.

With four main wings on each of its three floors, the Smithsonian Institution building houses portraiture art in two of the wings, and contains American art and exhibits in the other two wings. I spent a long time walking through one of the Portrait Gallery’s more famous exhibits, which contains portrait paintings and other representations of every American president. But I was more intrigued by an exhibit in the next wing over, called “American Portraiture Today.” The art in this exhibit, by artists who entered the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, challenges the notion of “self” and what it means to be “other.” From portraits of transgender children to uncomfortably revealing portrayals of the body, the exhibit provides a diverse and encompassing range of images that do seem to represent America today.

Another notable portraiture exhibit is titled “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze.” This exhibition features over 50 portraits of celebrities and luminaries, from Oprah Winfrey to Kobe Bryant to Katy Perry. I first came across a large portrait of Brad Pitt by Collin Davidson. My favorite portrait in the exhibit, however, was one of rapper/actor LL Cool J, by Kehinde Wiley. Wiley’s art will also appear in an exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum starting at the end of July, called, “A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art.”

IMG_4117 IMG_4115

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has an impressive collection of modern art, too. I spent more than half of my time at the museum wandering among the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Nicholas Nixon, and Nam June Paik. I saw Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” a photographic project that captures Nixon’s wife and her three sisters over 25 years, with the same shot taken every year. I also came across Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii,” in all its neon glory.


The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are just two of the many D.C. art museums that offer art of all styles, from all historical periods. Other must-sees in D.C. include the Phillips Collection and the Renwick Gallery. These small museums are more intimate but still have a wide collection of art on display. Don’t miss out!