The West as America Art Exhibition
The West as America, Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920, an art exhibition organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (then known as the National Museum of American Art, or NMAA) in 1991, caused an unforeseen controversy and according to art critics, ""engaged the public in the debate over western revisionism on an unprecedented scale.""The paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum represent the United States' government’s oldest art collection and in its 160-year history the museum had not received much detrimental publicity before this exhibition.The goal of the curators of The West as America was to reveal how artists during this period visually revised the conquest of the West in an effort to correspond with a national ideology that favored Western expansionism. By mixing New West historiographical interpretation with Old West art, the curators sought not only to show how these frontier images have defined our idea of the national past but also to dispel the traditional beliefs behind the images. Many who visited the exhibit missed the curator’s point and instead became incensed with what they saw as the curator’s dismantling of the history and legacy of the American western frontier.Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee were angered by what they termed the show’s ""political agenda"" and threatened to cut funds to the Smithsonian Institution.Controversial reviews generated widespread media coverage, both negative and positive, in leading newspapers, magazines, and art journals. Television crews from Austria, Italy and the United States Information Agency vied to videotape the show before its 164 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures and prints, along with the 55 text panels accompanying the artworks were taken down.Several key factors, including a prominent venue, skillful promotion, widespread publicity, elaborate catalog and the importance of the artworks themselves all contributed to the impact of the exhibition. Timing also played a part in fostering public response both pro and con as the show’s run coincided with events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the allied victory in the Gulf War, the resurgence of multiculturalism and the revival of public interest in western themes in fashion, advertising, music, literature and film.