I Am an American: Photographs from the East Baltimore Documentary Survey

June 18, 2021 – February 19, 2022

Linda Rich, East Baltimore Documentary Survey Project, ca. 1975, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1983.63.1132, © 1975, George Jadowski

Smithsonian American Art Museum
8th and G Streets, NW
Washington, DC

Floor Plan

From 1976-1981, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) sponsored a program of photography surveys in communities across the United States to celebrate the bicentennial of the country’s founding. These surveys created a new visual record of a changing nation. Survey projects included preserving or working with historical collections; however, most were commissions of new work by an emerging generation of documentarians, many of whom became prominent figures of American photography. Of the more than seventy projects funded by the NEA, the East Baltimore Survey was unique for having been conceived, led, and carried out by women photographers—Elinor Cahn, Joan Clark Netherwood, and Linda Rich. With significant support from the community, it was also one of the most highly acclaimed at a national level.

The ninety works on view in the exhibition are drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. In 1983, 1,500 photographs by NEA grant recipients were transferred to SAAM, effectively establishing the museum’s photography collection. A second transfer of 500 photographs took place in 2010. Thirteen of the completed photography surveys were among the photographs received by SAAM. The documentary survey photographs are among the important collections of works created by American artists under the support of the federal government including the Federal Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration created during the 1930s and ‘40s, and the Art and Architecture program of the General Services Administration from the 1970s.