Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum has a broad variety of American art that covers all regions and art movements found in the United States. Among the significant artists represented in its collection are Nam June Paik, Jenny Holzer, David Hockney, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Albert Bierstadt, Edmonia Lewis, Thomas Moran, James Gill, Edward Hopper, and Winslow Homer.
The museum is home to two innovative public spaces, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art and the Lunder Conservation Center. The Luce Foundation Center is the first visible art storage and study center in Washington, D.C. It presents more than 3,300 objects in 64 secure glass cases which quadruples the number of artworks from the permanent collection on public view. The Luce Foundation Center features paintings densely hung on screens, sculptures, crafts and folk art objects arranged on shelves, and miniatures and medals in drawers that open. Large-scale sculptures are installed on the first floor. Interactive computer kiosks provide the public with information about every object on display, including a discussion of each artwork, artist biographies, audio interviews, video clips and still images.
The Lunder Conservation Center is the first art conservation facility that allows the public permanent behind-the-scenes views of preservation work. Conservation staff is visible to the public through floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow visitors to see firsthand all the techniques that conservators use to examine, treat and preserve artworks. The Lunder Center has five state-of-the-art laboratories and studios equipped to treat paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, sculptures, folk art objects, contemporary crafts, decorative arts and frames. Staff from both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery work in the Lunder Center.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum first opened to the public in its current location in 1968 when the Smithsonian renovated the Old Patent Office Building in order to display its collection of fine art. Previously the collection, which was begun in 1829, was on display in a Smithsonian building on the National Mall. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has had many names over the years—Smithsonian Art Collection, National Gallery of Art, National Collection of Fine Arts, and National Museum of American Art. The museum changed to its current name in October 2000.
The Smithsonian completed another renovation of the building in July 2006. Washington D.C.-based Hartman-Cox Architects oversaw the project which restored many of the building’s exceptional architectural features, such as the porticos, a curving double staircase, colonnades, vaulted galleries, large windows, and skylights as long as a city block. On November 18, 2007 the central courtyard opened with a new, curved glass canopy designed by the architectural firm Foster + Partners.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum shares its historic building with the National Portrait Gallery, another Smithsonian museum. Although the two museums' names have not changed, they are collectively known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.