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District of Play: DC’s Vibrant Video Game Scene
April 6, 2017


Time's running out to submit your game to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's SAAM Arcade. The deadline for submission is April 15, 2017. Below, Dorothy Ann Phoenix of the International Game Developers Association's DC Chapter discusses the great opportunities available to gamers and game developers in DC.

Indie Arcade

SAAM's Indie Arcade (now SAAM Arcade), Darren Milligan, 2014

As fans, gamers in DC have a lot of great local titles and events they can enjoy. Independent game developers have a network of experience, support, and play-testing they can tap into as they work on their own games. All of these things come together at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's SAAM Arcade. Organized by SAAM, ESA, IGDA DC, American University Game Lab, and MAGFest, the 2017 SAAM Arcade builds on the success of previous events with two days full of free gaming and education. Developers from DC and all around the country will be stopping in to show off their games, while retro classics and game-inspired bands fill SAAM's Kogod Courtyard with fan-favorite sights and sounds. What better way to dive head-first into the DC gaming scene?

When most people think about cities that are prominent video game culture hubs, they probably don't think of the Washington, DC area. However, the DC and Baltimore metro regions are home to not only prominent game studios, but also great events for people looking to get their arcade fix. Maryland's Bethesda Game Studios continues to give us hits like the blockbuster Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. Electronic Art's former studio in the region, Mythic Entertainment, has likewise spun off into spiritual successors Broadsword Games, which continues to support the popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, Dark Age of Camelot, and City State Entertainment's, Camelot Unchained. Meanwhile, Baltimore is home to studios such as BreakAway Games (a recognized leader in educational and simulation games) and Firaxis Games (home of Sid Meier's Civilization series) in addition to a vibrant community of independent developers and small studios.

All of this has made the Washington area a destination for game players and makers alike. Throughout the year, fans and developers gather at IGDA meetups, local pop-up arcades such as the District Arcade, Baltimore's Artscape street festival, and other local events to play home-grown games. Likewise, the region is home to the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest, now in its 15th year), which features panels by industry leaders, live shows by game-inspired bands, an indie game showcase, and one of the largest collections of classic gaming consoles and arcade cabinets in existence. DC-based developers and studios such as Molecular Jig Games (Immune Defense), SmashRiot (Dr. SpaceZoo), and The Dirigiballers (TumbleWeed Express) have built up a local following and even been featured on the Steam game distribution platform. Upcoming games by Pie for Breakfast Studios (Dead Man's Trail) and Philosoplay (That Rock Paper Scissors Game!) are on the horizon, and schools such as American University, George Mason, and Montgomery College offer game-making programs: all factors that will sustain this community for years to come.

If you have a game you'd like to showcase at SAAM Arcade, the deadline to submit is April 15. If you're a player or interested in finding out more about video games and the gaming community, mark your calendars for the SAAM Arcade. The action takes place August 5-6, 2017.

Posted by Kaylin on April 6, 2017 in Museums & Technology
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Remembering James Rosenquist
April 4, 2017


James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist's Industrial Cottage ©1977, James Rosenquist

Pop artist James Rosenquist, who died last week at the age of 83, created large canvases that were influenced by his early years as a sign painter in Minnesota and New York City. (A contemporaneous article referred to him as "the billboard Michelangelo who spills paint on tourists below"). In his commercial work, he was tasked with making foods "delicious" and cigarettes "smokable." In his prints, Rosenquist continued to use an airbrush, a tool of the advertising trade, to give his forms a seamless look. He also continued creating representations of food, including canned spaghetti, bacon, and whipped butter. Along with his Pop peers Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, he mined the image-heavy worlds of advertising and media to create works that broke down the separation between the artistic, the commercial, and the industrial.

When Rosenquist spoke at SAAM ten years ago as part of the Clarice Smith Series of Distinguished Lectures in American Art, he titled his rousing talk, "Fine Art is Not a Career" (view his talk below). He recalled the heady atmosphere of post-World War II Manhattan, complete with colorful portraits of his friends and teachers. Chief curator at SAAM, Virginia Mecklenburg, has described Rosenquist's works as "provocative and sometimes enigmatic. Irony and humor and beauty are all characteristics." The museum featured a retrospective of his work in 1987. The opening party remains a bit of museum lore: it featured a rock 'n roll band and quintessentially "American" foods: hotdogs, popcorn and beer (alas, no canned spaghetti). And apparently, Rosenquist danced the night away.

At SAAM we have about a dozen works by Rosenquist in the collection, including two that are currently on view, The Friction Disappears and Industrial Cottage. In the latter, Rosenquist divided the canvas into three zones, populating each with large forms that reflected his years as a billboard painter. In each section, there is a contrast between steely machinery and softer forms and warmer colors. The artist called the paintings from these years his "self-portraits," even referring to himself as a "cottage industry" due to the professional pressures of earning a living.

Unexpected relationships between objects are often at play in Rosenquist's works and help us to rethink how we see the world. And though he titled his talk at SAAM, "Fine Art is Not a Career," we look back on his singular career and respectfully disagree.


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Posted by Howard on April 4, 2017 in American Art Elsewhere, American Art Here
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Ryders on the Storm: Celebrating the Art of Albert Pinkham Ryder
March 28, 2017


Ryder's Jonah

Albert Pinkham Ryder's Jonah

Before Betsy Broun retired from the helm of the Smithsonian American Art Museum last fall, she gave a talk where she revealed her top ten works (ok, seventeen works) of art in the collection, beginning with Albert Pinkham Ryder's Jonah. Ryder, who died one hundred years ago today, was an artist close to Broun's heart and the subject of a book she published in 1989.

"I worry that he's in danger of being forgotten," she told us while sharing her thoughts about his work, his era, and his influence on the next generation of artists. According to Broun, the difficult later years of Ryder's life—depression, ill health, loneliness—can be seen in Jonah, as the hero struggles in the churning sea for dear life. He was 70 years old and had been declining since a hospitalization in 1915; the cause of death was basically kidney failure.

Despite the difficulties, when he died, Ryder was already lionized as an icon of American art. According to Broun, "There was an entire room dedicated to his work at the famous Armory Show of 1913 where his art was offered as a precursor to modernism. In 1918, the Metropolitan Museum of Art did a memorial exhibition with 48 paintings. Ryder's deep involvement with the properties of oil paint and the painting process, and his intuitive powerful approach to composition, led such modernists as Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Jackson Pollock, and many others to view him as the key inspiration for a new modern style, despite his fondness for historical, Shakespearean, and Biblical subjects."

What makes Ryder's legacy a bit fuzzy is that even before he died, suspicious paintings were starting to circulate, and, as Broun tells us, "the first Ryder biography (by Frederic Fairchild Sherman in 1920) was inaccurate, full of romantic made-up legends, and illustrated with several forgeries. By 1932, there were literally hundreds of 'wrong' works clouding the market and making Ryder a difficult artist for scholars, collectors, and museums to study and collect. Art historian and former director of the Whitney, Lloyd Goodrich, led the way in using new lab techniques such as x-radiography to sort out the originals from the fakes."

SAAM has the most important collection of Ryders in the world, including a gallery on the second floor featuring nine of his visionary works, including Jonah. In this dramatic, psychologically-charged, life-or-death seascape, the artist fashioned a god of light spreading his wings, exhibiting what Broun called "a spiritual tenaciousness."

Posted by Howard on March 28, 2017 in American Art Everywhere, American Art Here
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The Renwick Gallery and the Space in Between
March 23, 2017


Janet Echelman

Visitors to the Renwick Gallery experience Janet Echelman's installation in different ways. Instagram photo by Isabela Barreto @belabd

What drew me to want to be an artist was, I have always been interested in how the space I'm in changes the way I feel and therefore who I am at any given moment.

Janet Echelman

Walk through the doors of the Renwick Gallery and the first thing most people notice is Odile Decq's curving red carpet, flowing up the stairs to an arched doorway. Next, at the top of the stairs, framed by the arch, a soft light shifts from magenta to marigold to dusky blue. For more than a year, Janet Echelman's woven sculpture 1.8 Renwick has beckoned people into the Grand Salon. Suspended high above, the billowing nets transform the space. At once an artwork and an experience, people walk around the room as colors projected on the hand-knotted nets shift, or stretch out on the floor for a new view and a moment of peace.

This space feels different, and it shows in the groups of people gathered on the floor or drifting through the room. Babies toddling through the pink light. Groups of teenagers relaxing. Couples posing for the perfect hazy shot. Here and there, visitors absorbing the atmosphere, undisturbed. Stealing a visit over a lunch hour, a special trip to meet a friend, accidental discovery, first dates, and reunions.

In the video below, Echelman talks about what makes her installation at the Renwick Gallery different from her other works, how she finds inspiration in the interstitial spaces of the world, and how sometimes the criticisms you need to protect your ideas from are your own.


Posted by Amy on March 23, 2017 in American Art Here, American Craft
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Art Conservation: Stretching a Very Large Gene Davis Painting
March 21, 2017



In this video you can see Smithsonian American Art Museum paintings conservator Amber Kerr sewing strips of canvas onto the tacking margins of a Gene Davis painting so that it can be restretched. Learn more about SAAM's art conservation work by going to Lunder Conservation Center's page on Facebook.


As often as art conservators do a standard treatment on a work of art in our collection, there is always an opportunity to learn a new approach to solving a challenging task. In the case of Gene Davis: Hot Beat (closing April 2, 2017), paintings conservator Amber Kerr coordinated with staff members from our design and registrar teams to manage the conservation treatments for several extremely large canvas paintings. Each had been rolled in storage for years.

From the construction of a "secret room" in the gallery in which they treated these oversized canvases, to designing a custom-built portable, yet lightweight "table" to treat them on, to calling sail makers for tips on stitching canvases, Amber found there was a lot to consider. And she had to come up with some new approaches for cleaning, stretching, and displaying Davis' canvases. In the video above, you can see Amber along with an intern, a fellow, and a contractor sewing new edge-lining strips to the tacking margins of Davis' painting so the canvas could be stretched.

To learn more about the behind-the-scenes work for Gene Davis: Hot Beat, join Amber for a gallery talk on Friday, March 24 at 4 p.m. The talk is free and starts at SAAM's G Street lobby.

Posted by Abigail on March 21, 2017 in American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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