TREASURED WORKS BY African American artists Alma Thomas and William H. Johnson are on view outside the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum (SAAM). With the help of the public, the works were selected to grace the new banners hanging at the museum’s entrances. “The Eclipse” (1970) by Thomas and “Flowers” (1939-40) by Johnson greet visitors as they ascend the stairs of the Washington, D.C., museum.

SAAM crowd sourced the decision, soliciting visitors and the museum’s online audience to vote for their favorite works from a pool of 12 in the collection. After considering the most popular works among the public, along with staff feedback, the museum’s new director made the final decision. She sought diversity, in terms of medium and time period, in the six works selected for display on the new banners.

“The opportunity to select banners that reflect the amazing strength and diversity of our collections was a treat. The banners help reflect on the outside the treasures on the inside of our building. …I made the final selection based on visual power and wanting to showcase the variety of works and artists that reflect the American experience—knowing that we have many strong works of art for future banners in the collection,” said Stephanie Stebich in a statement when the banners debuted. She has served as director of SAAM since April.

“The opportunity to select banners that reflect the amazing strength and diversity of our collections was a treat. …I made the final selection based on visual power and wanting to showcase the variety of works and artists that reflect the American experience…” — Stephanie Stebich, Director of SAAM


Installation view of new banners in front of Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. | Courtesy SAAM

 

BOTH THOMAS AND JOHNSON are well represented in the museum’s collection. SAAM holds the largest collection of works by Johnson more than 1,000—including a few hundred paintings and 800 works on paper. “Flowers,” the image featured on the museum banner, also appears on a Forever U.S. postage stamp issued in 2012.

Born in Columbus, Ga., Thomas was first student to earn a fine arts degree from Howard University. She spent her entire career in Washington, both as a junior high school art teacher and into retirement when she pursued her painting practice full time. There are 29 paintings by Thomas in SAAM’s collection. Her series of “Space Paintings” includes “The Eclipse.” The 1970 work chosen for the banner was presented in two traveling exhibitions: “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000), and “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).

In addition to Thomas and Johnson, works by Berenice Abbott, Olga Albizu, Thomas Hart Benton, and Edward Hopper, are featured on the banners. Hanging vertically, the museum banners are more than 20-feet tall. CT

 

TOP IMAGES: From left, ALMA THOMAS, “The Eclipse,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1978.40.3; WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Flowers,” 1939-1940 (oil on plywood). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.602

 

BOOKSHELF
“Alma Thomas” documents the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and the Studio Museum in Harlem, and expands beyond what was presented at the museums, featuring more than 125 vibrant, colorful paintings and works on paper, many published for the first time. To further explore the life and practice of Alma Thomas, consider “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings” and “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978” published to coincide with her earlier surveys. “William H. Johnson: An America Modern” documents the traveling exhibition organized by Morgan State University and the Smithsonian. “William H. Johnson: Truth Be Told” illuminates the artist’s life and delves into the management and fate of is extensive body of work after his death, which ultimately led to the cache being acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

 


From left, The new banners features works by Alma Thomas, Edward Hopper, William H. Johnson, Olga Albizu, Berenice Abbott, Thomas Hart Benton. | Courtesy SAAM