African Art Museum director to retire this spring

“Where a strong woman leads, streams run uphill.”
—Ethiopian proverb

Cole in red jacket stands near sculpture

Johnnetta Cole, 80, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, is photographed near “Woman With Palm Leaf Skirt,” by Nigerian artists Sokari Douglas Camp, at the museum. (Nikki Khan / The Washington Post)

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the Director of the National Museum of African Art, will retire from the Smithsonian in March 2017. She became director of the museum in March 2009.

Johnnetta is known across the Smithsonian for her spirit of collaboration, collegiality and passion for the arts. All are evident from her many accomplishments at the museum. Throughout her tenure, she has worked with her colleagues to raise the profile of the African Art Museum as the nation’s premier museum focusing on the visual arts of Africa.

Under her leadership, the museum’s stellar exhibitions have challenged visitors to engage with the dynamic and diverse arts of the continent that is the birthplace of humankind—Africa. Johnnetta often greets groups of visitors to the museum with a heartfelt, “Welcome home!,” and she works enthusiastically to ensure that they understand the relevance of Africa to their lives and their experiences.

Johnnetta’s eight-year tenure at the museum is marked by an impressive list of groundbreaking exhibitions, including “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts,” “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” and “Divine Comedy.” Recently, Yinka Shonibare’s “Wind Sculpture VII,” a majestic work of contemporary art commissioned by the museum, was installed outside its entrance.

Johnnetta and her colleagues have increased African Art’s local, national and international collaborations. Of particular note is the collaboration with the Nigerian Commission of Museums and Monuments that has resulted in the museum sending parts of its exhibition “Chief S.O. Alonge” to the National Museum in Benin City, Nigeria—the first time the Smithsonian has provided an exhibition to an African nation.

Johnnetta is a champion for greater diversity and inclusion in American art museums and beyond. With support from the Ford Foundation, Johnnetta hired a chief diversity officer at African Art—a first at the Smithsonian. She brought together Smithsonian colleagues to present Museum Day Live! 2016, which focused on welcoming women and girls of color to American museums and other cultural institutions, and she hosted a national workshop to encourage greater diversity and inclusion in art museums.

With the help of strong involvement from African Art’s advisory board, Johnnetta continues to lead the museum’s successful national campaign. During her directorship, the museum has received multiple major gifts.

Posted: 7 December 2016
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