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City Life Org – The new exhibition traces the rise of self-taught artists and their revolutionary contributions to American art

Sister Gertrude Morgan,Fan, approximately. 1970, paint and ink on cardboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.43R-V.

We Are Made of Stories: Self-taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection “Opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on July 1

Artists with no formal training, who have learned from family, community, and personal travel, have long been a presence in American art. But it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the help of devoted collector-advocates, that the collective strength of their vision and creative presence reshaped the traditional art world. “We Are Made of Stories: Self-Taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection” traces the rise of untrained artists in the 20th century and examines how, despite wide-ranging social, racial and gender barriers, their creativity and bold self-definition became a major force in American art.

“We Are Made of Stories” is on display from July 1 to March 26, 2023 in the museum’s main building in Washington, DC. It will not travel.

The exhibition celebrates Douglas O. Robson’s gift in 2016 of 93 works of art collected by his mother, Margaret Z. Robson (1932–2014). Margaret Robson embraced art that reflected diverse and personal journeys and helped museums and scholars make it more available to the public. Her son now carries these efforts into the future. The exhibition features works selected from the original gift, 32 additional promised gifts and a major painting by Dan Miller that Douglas Robson donated to the museum in 2022. It is organized by Leslie Umberger, self-taught folk art curator at the Smithsonian American Museum of Art .

“We are delighted to share with the public the recent gifts from the Robson family collection and celebrate Margaret and Doug Robson’s commitment to supporting the creativity of American artists,” said Stephanie Stebich, Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum . “Since the 1970s, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has been a pioneer in recognizing the widest range of artistic expressions. With this exhibition, SAAM continues its commitment to building a truly diverse collection that reflects the unique stories and voices of all artists ”.

“We Are Made of Stories” addresses issues of marginalization that go far beyond the definitions of “self-taught” artists as opposed to “academically trained” artists. Featuring 110 artworks, the exhibition examines the extraordinary lives of 43 artists, including James Castle, Thornton Dial Sr., William Edmondson, Howard Finster, Bessie Harvey, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Philadelphia Wireman, Nellie Mae Rowe, Judith Scott and Bill Traylor, among others. By focusing on the personal stories of the artists, the depth and meaning of the works of art they have created become more fully visible.

“The artworks of the Robson Family Collection give a voice to people who have faced challenges, oppression and often extreme marginalization in their lives, but by leaving their imprint in the form of art, they have moved the needle towards a more enlightened age. , more humanistic moment, “said Umberger.” This project amplifies unique perspectives and argues that multivocal is essential to a complete and genuine picture of the United States. Look at the lonely paths that many of these artists have walked, as well as the collective ground they have earned by affirming their personal views of the world and telling their own story “.

An introductory video features interviews with curator Umberger and collector Douglas Robson. Fourteen artists identified as “game changers” are explored in the exhibition through text panels containing biographical information and portraits of the artists. Through audio clips, the voices of artists Calvin and Ruby Black, Finster and Morgan are in the galleries and provide critical information on selected artists’ practices and unique environments. Kiosks within the gallery highlight additional artwork from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection, allowing visitors to further explore the creativity of these influential artists.

About the Collection

The Smithsonian American Art Museum was among the first major museums to collect works by self-taught artists and support a diverse populist voice in the context of what is traditionally considered art. The museum began collecting this type of work in 1970, when James Hampton’s astonishing “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Millennium General Assembly of Nations” came to light in a makeshift studio not far from the museum after the death of James Hampton. artist. This iconic work serves as the basis for a collection that tells an expanded history of America.

Several major collectors, with their transformative donations, have helped build the collection over the past half century. In the early 1980s and 1990s, Chuck and Jan Rosenak donated important works of art by self-taught artists to the museum. The museum’s largest single acquisition of this material occurred in 1986 with over 500 works from the groundbreaking collection of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr., which firmly established the museum’s commitment to inexperienced artists. Important gifts followed from William Arnett, Orren and Marilyn Bradley, David L. Davies, the Kallir family, Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan and others. Douglas O. Robson’s gift of art and program support are among the largest donations to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s self-taught program and confirm that the collection is among the most significant in the world. The museum has had spaces dedicated to popular and self-taught art for over 50 years.

Free public programs in person

A symposium titled “We Are Made of Stories: Identity and Experience in Art” will take place on Friday, October 7, from 1pm to 5pm ET. It is the second program in the museum’s Margaret Z. Robson Symposium Series. Speakers include Matthew Higgs, editor and chief curator of White Columns; Sharon Patricia Holland, Townsend Ludington’s Distinguished Professor and President of the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone, self-taught folk art curator at the High Museum of Art; Mark Pascale, Janet and Craig Duchossois curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago; and Leisa Rundquist, professor of art history at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. The symposium will be moderated by Umberger, will take place in person in the museum’s McEvoy Auditorium, and will be webcast live via YouTube. Registration is required; visit for details.

The documentary “This World Is Not My Own” about artist Nellie Mae Rowe will be screened in the museum’s McEvoy Auditorium on Thursday, March 16, 2023 at 6 p.m. ET. A discussion with filmmakers Ruchi Mital, Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell follows immediately after the screening. Registration is required; visit for details.


The richly illustrated catalog features more than 100 works with essays by Robson and Umberger making important and critically expansive contributions to the understanding of self-taught artists and how their individual histories have altered and enriched the complex history of American art. Co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, it is available for purchase ($ 45) in the museum shop and online.


“We Are Made of Stories: Self-taught Artists in the Robson Family Collection” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support was provided by Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr. American Folk Art Fund, Shaun and Andy Block, Steven Czekala, James and Catherine Denny, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Travis Marquette and Sean Kosofsky, Rumsfeld Family Fund, Jeff Rosensweig and Natalie Allen and the Equity Fund.

Information on the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum houses one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art in the world. His works reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from colonial times to today. The museum’s main building, located between Octave and G Street NW, is open daily from 11:30 to 19:00 The museum’s Renwick Gallery, a branch of the museum dedicated to contemporary crafts and decorative arts , is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW and is open daily from 10am to 5.30pm. Check online for current hours and entrance information. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Museum Information (Registered): (202) 633-7970. Website:

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