The American University Museum hosts rotating exhibitions of contemporary art from around the globe and the Alper Initiative, a dedicated research and display space for the art history of Washington, DC. The museum is located on American University’s main campus in the Katzen Arts Center.
The museum is a three-story public museum and sculpture garden located within the university's dynamic and multidisciplinary Katzen Arts Center. The region's largest university facility for exhibiting art, the museum has a permanent collection that highlights our Corcoran Legacy Collection, Watkins Collection, and The Rothfeld Collection of Contemporary Israeli Art.
Rotating exhibitions emphasize regional, national, and international contemporary art. The museum's collections enable us to present the art history of Washington, while our Kunsthalle style ensures constantly changing, highly relevant and provocative programming.
We focus on international art because American University has a global commitment.
We show political art because the university is committed to human rights, social justice, and political engagement.
We support the artists in our community because the university takes an active and responsible role in the formation of our region's contemporary art and culture.
American University's Department of Art was founded in 1925 by Will Hutchins, who served as Chair until 1941. In 1942, under the direction of a new chair for the Department of Art, C. Law Watkins, the university entered into an agreement with the Phillips Gallery Art School whereby students could take classes in the mornings at the gallery and regular college courses in the afternoon at the university. Watkins re-organized American University's Department of Art, enabling students to earn a bachelor's or master's degree in fine arts. By this arrangement, AU became one of the first institutions of higher learning in the United States to offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine arts.
In 1945, after the death of C. Law Watkins, the faculty in the AU Department of Art, the Phillips Gallery Arts School, and artist friends including co-founder of the Phillips Collection, Duncan Phillips, contributed gifts of art to establish the Watkins Memorial Collection as a tribute to their friend and mentor. Duncan Phillips wrote an essay for the first exhibition catalogue of the Watkins Memorial Collection, and between 1950 and 1952 contributed works by Milton Avery, Eugene Berman, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Louis Marcoussis, Harold Weston, and Arthur Dove to the collection. These works serve as the foundation of the permanent collection at the American University Museum.
The Watkins Memorial Collection continued to grow through the influence of Duncan Phillips. Following the death of artist Katherine Drier in 1952, her friend and Dada artist Marcel Duchamp offered Phillips the works in Dreier's personal collection. After much deliberation, Phillips selected seventeen works for his museum, The Phillips Collection, and suggested that twelve paintings and sculptures be given to the fledgling Watkins Gallery at American University to honor his long-standing friendship with Watkins. This gift included works by Werner Drewes, Joseph Stella, Heinrich Campendonck, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters, Jacques Villon, and David Burliuk. Over the next fifty years, the Watkins Memorial Collection at the AU Museum has grown to host over 6,000 objects.
Through a generous donation by Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen in 2005, the Katzen Arts Center opened on the campus of American University. With the Watkins Memorial Collection as its core, the AU Museum adopted the mission of presenting exhibitions that mirrored the city of Washington, DC, with a focus on political, international, and local art. The Corcoran Legacy Collection, acquired in 2018, expanded the collection by over 9,000 objects.
The 44,000 square foot museum space includes three levels and offers the opportunity to present multiple exhibitions at a time, with approximately 24 exhibitions mounted annually.