A History of the Smithsonian American Art Museum: the intersection of art, science, and bureaucracy

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  • Dedicated to the art of the United States, the Smithsonian American Art Museum contains works by more than 7,000 artists and is a major resource for preserving and studying the art and cultural heritage of the U.S. Fink's history traces the ups and downs of the Smithsonian's first art museum to its role today as a showcase for American fine art. Reviewers note that "it reads like a nineteenth-century melodrama, replete with villains and heroes, destruction by fire, dashed hopes, and periods of subsistence survival -- all leading eventually to a happy ending."
  • A gallery of art was provided for in the 1846 act founding the Smithsonian, and confirmed by judicial decisions that it was the nation's art museum. The "National Gallery of Art" was initially managed by an administration of scientists. In its early years, the museum displayed a diverse array of international arts and crafts, most of which were donated by private collectors. The museum has relied on both federal and private funding, changing its mandate to American art after the opening of Andrew Mellon's National Gallery of Art in 1941. The gallery's history is reflected in its many names: National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Gallery of Art, National Collection of Fine Arts, and National Museum of American Art prior to its title as Smithsonian American Art Museum today. The collection focused on nineteenth-century figurative art until the arrival of S. Dillon Ripley as the eighth Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1964. Ripley supported the development of art collections, encouraged collecting modern art, and oversaw the collection's move in 1968 to its present location in the Patent Office Building.


  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Fink was a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu




  • Art History
  • Art museums
  • Art History--American
  • Art museum curators
  • Art museum directors


Washington (D.C.)



Physical description

Number of pages: 220; Page numbers: 1-220

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