Who’s who: The women leading top Washington-area museums

February 28
At a photo shoot with Post photographer Marvin Joseph, Washington museum directors talk together about their careers in the arts and how they feel about the term "women's leadership." (Zoeann Murphy and Lillian Cunningham/The Washington Post)

In recent years, more and more women have taken the helm at museums across the country. In Washington, roughly 50 percent of museum directors are women. As a supplement to the Washington Post’s “The Directors,” a piece that explores the state of women's leadership in the arts, we profiled 13 prominent museum leaders from Washington and Baltimore. They discussed with us their career highlights, professional and personal challenges, and their thoughts on leadership. Here, we take a closer look at these women who’ve achieved significant roles in the museum world.

Scroll down the page to read about all 13 women, or jump to a particular bio by clicking on the name below:

Camille Giraud Akeju, Anacostia Community Museum | Sara Bloomfield, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum | Doreen Bolger, Baltimore Museum of Art | Elizabeth Broun, Smithsonian American Art Museum & the Renwick Gallery | Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art | Judy A. Greenberg, Kreeger Museum | Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, American Visionary Art Museum | Dorothy Kosinski, Phillips Collection | Peggy Loar, Corcoran Gallery of Art | Julia Marciari-Alexander, the Walters Art Museum | Kate Markert, Hillwood Museum | Kim Sajet, National Portrait Gallery | Susan Fisher Sterling, National Museum of Women in the Arts

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Susan Fisher Sterling (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Susan Fisher Sterling, 58
Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Alma Mater: Princeton University, M.A. PhD in Art History

First museum job: Associate curator of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which she joined in 1988. She's now in her 26th year, and assumed the directorship in 2008.

On work-life balance: "I've noticed the move from the power dinner to the power breakfast. Women really want to be home for dinner."

Greatest career achievement: "My greatest career accomplishment has been to stay in one place and fully participate in the museum's evolution, from our founder's vision 25 years ago to the dynamic institution for women in the arts that we are today…From debuting amazing artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Julie Taymor to reaching a $50 million endowment goal.”

Thoughts on female leaders: "Diversity, accessibility and inclusivity — we are still far behind on this model of enfranchisement. I believe women, generally, try to move this along more significantly than our male counterparts. There are what I call 'empathetic males,' but we're better at the big tent. We have a better understanding of how to get that accomplished."

 


Johnnetta B. Cole (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, 77
Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Alma Mater: Oberlin College, B.A.; Northwestern University, M.A. and PhD in anthropology, with a focus on African studies. Holds 61 honorary degrees.

First museum job: Cole began advising Smithsonian programs in the mid-80s. Before becoming director of the National Museum of African Art, she was president of Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, and Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., where she opened an art gallery.

On attracting women of color to leadership: "I don't think we've made enough progress to say 'Oh well, we'll have business as usual, and every now and then a woman of color will appear.' We have to act affirmatively to make changes. We don't change patterns by doing the same old thing we've always done. We have to do things differently and creatively."

Greatest career achievement: "In the third act of my life, I did not rest on all that my colleagues and I were able to do when I was the president of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women. I entered a different field and began a new career as the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art."

Thoughts on women leaders: "It would be a rare day when any individual enters a situation or job and leaves behind her experiences and sensibilities," Cole said. "I'm not leaving behind my experiences as an African American who grew up in the segregated South. We are who we are. The more diverse a set of folk, the more diverse the experience is. That's why we need diversity."

 


Peggy Loar (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Peggy Loar, 65
Corcoran Gallery of Art interim director

Alma Mater: University of Cincinnati, B.A. and M.A. in art history

Early museum experience: Spent nine years as director of the Smithsonian Institution Travel Exhibition Service, overseeing 100 exhibitions that traveled around the world.

On breaking the salary barrier: "I think it will take a little more time, but it will happen. Some of these boards are pretty diverse. Ours is pretty equal [in terms of] men and women. With more women on the boards, don't count women out. . . I think we might even see a woman director at MoMA when Glenn Lowry leaves."

On the rise of women as directors: "There is a shift taking place. I think in a healthy museum world, there should be a balance of men and women. And in Washington, there are so many museums. You can do things in Washington that you couldn't do in other cities, like Cleveland or Cincinnati. It could take longer there."

Thoughts on female leaders: "I do think women have a different management style than men. They tend to be calmer and know how to balance many things, and in my experience, they have a better sense of humor on things."

 


Elizabeth Broun (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Elizabeth Broun, 66
Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Alma Mater: University of Kansas, PhD

First museum job: Curator and interim director at the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. She became chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1983.

On breaking the salary ceiling: 
"There is the sense that as you ascend the ladder, it becomes more a club that's by invitation only. But I'm optimistic this will all change. It will change more quickly if it's highlighted as something to pay attention to."

Greatest career achievement: "The renovation of our noble historic home in the Old Patent Office and the creation of exciting new facilities: the Lunder Conservation Center, the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, the MacMillan Education Center, the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium, and the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard."

Thoughts on female leaders: "I think women thrive in museums. There's always a whole lot of work that must be done by deadline in a collaborative way, and women excel at that."

 


Judy A. Greenberg (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Judy A. Greenberg, late 60s
Kreeger Museum director

Alma Mater: New York University, B.S. in studio art and education; Hunter College, graduate degree; University of Colorado Boulder Museum Management Program

First arts job: Before becoming founding director of the Kreeger Museum in 1994, Greenberg founded Rockville Arts Place, a nonprofit community arts center now called VisArts.

On being one of the first female directors in Washington: "I was thinking back to when I first started [in 1994]. I was one of the first female directors, but I never thought about it one way or the other. I was excited to build the museum, but there's no doubt that there was a good-old-boys network during that time."

Greatest career achievement: "It spans a 20-year period, as the founding director of the Kreeger Museum. The immense satisfaction of building the Kreeger Museum into what it is today, [and] the creative process of developing and seeing it all come to fruition, is an amazing feeling."

Thoughts on female leaders: "I lead in a very collaborative way, but I have nine full-time employees, and we all work very closely together. I don't know if I'm collaborative because I'm female or if that's just my personality."

 


Kate Markert (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Kate Markert, 62
Hillwood Museum director

Alma Mater: University of Maryland Baltimore County, BA in French; University of Maryland College Park, MA in art history; Johns Hopkins University, MBA

First museum job: Registrar at the University of Maryland College Park Art Gallery.

Greatest career achievement: "The success at Hillwood of growing attendance and membership. In [my] first two years at Hillwood, attendance increased by over 43 percent, and membership has grown over 75 percent since 2010."

Thoughts on female leaders: "When I started out, I didn't think a whole lot about [gender], but one thing that's always been true is that the audience skews toward women. It's a natural thing then that you'd have more women in leadership positions."

 


Sara J. Bloomfield (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Sara Bloomfield, 63
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum director

Alma mater: Northwestern University, B.A. English literature; John Carroll University, M.A. education; Cleveland State University, MBA

First museum job: She began working for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1986, when the museum was still in its development stages. She became director in 1999.

On mentorship: "Our vice chairman, Ruth Mandel, she created the Center for American Women in Politics. She would talk a lot about these issues with me when I considered becoming acting director. I realized that kind of mentoring from a more experienced woman meant a lot to me. She thought from a feminist perspective even though I didn't see things that way. That experience makes me look around at young talent and think how I can be a good mentor and role model to young men and women."

Greatest career achievement: "I am most proud of taking the museum beyond its walls to the nation and, now, to the world as a global institution teaching Holocaust history and lessons about the fragility of freedom, the nature of hate and the consequences of indifference to audiences everywhere."

Thoughts on female leaders: "We can all make generalizations about men and women, but the qualities of a great leader are the qualities of a great leader, and no leader is perfect. I can't see gender being a determining factor in anyone's leadership success."

 


Julia Marciari-Alexander (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Julia Marciari-Alexander, 46
Executive director, the Walters Art Museum

Early museum job: Assistant/associate curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art.

Greatest career achievement: "When I say I'm the first woman director of the Walters, people still clap. Obviously it's not about me, but I feel that that's so exciting that people feel, somehow, that that's still news."

Thoughts on female leaders: "When I look at being a museum director and a woman who grew up in that moment following the feminist movement, I wonder whether leadership style doesn't come out of that moment. The whole notion of creating teams and bringing your team together, is that because I'm a woman and women work in teams traditionally, or because we as a society realize that teamwork produces stronger results?"

 


Dorothy M. Kosinski (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Dorothy Kosinski, 60
Phillips Collection director

Alma Mater: Yale University, BA; The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, MA and PhD

Prior to the Phillips: She was the senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Art. For 12 years, Kosinski lived in Basel, Switzerland, where she worked as a curator and university instructor.

Greatest career achievement: "Looking back on my previous roles, I've been particularly proud of my extensive work abroad, including major scholarly exhibitions, as well as my successes in securing major European acquisitions for the Dallas Museum of Art during my tenure there. More recently as director of the Phillips — that in itself is a highlight — I was quite honored to be appointed by the president to the National Council on the Humanities."

Thoughts on leadership: "You can see in the field that there are many more curators who are affording themselves professional opportunities, like the Getty Leadership Institute or the Center for Curatorial Leadership. People are seeking out enhancements, and I think it reflects a shift in the terrain."

 


Camille Giraud Akeju (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Camille Giraud Akeju, 63
Director, Smithsonian Institution's Anacostia Community Museum

Alma Mater: Howard University, BA and MA

Prior to the Anacostia Museum: She was president and chief executive of the Harlem School of the Arts in New York City.

Greatest career achievement: “At ACBAW Center for the Arts, it was stabilizing my small, hometown art organization and helping it achieve regional notoriety. At the New York Transit Museum, it was being part of a team that transformed a temporary bicentennial exhibition into an AAM certified museum. Now, at the Anacostia Community Museum, I am in the midst of another transformation, one that will help its work remain relevant to the local constituency while appealing to a broader global community.”

On work-life balance: "Women are phenomenal; we are usually juggling a lot more than men have to. Most women directors I know have families and have raised children. They have a life outside of the museum."

Thoughts on female leaders: “On a peer-to-peer level, women still have to elbow their way into the discussion. There is still some level of ‘She’s got to prove herself’ to be a the table with the big boys. But there are women who have faced that challenge with ease and demonstrated that, yes, they do deserve a seat at the table.”

 


Kim Sajet (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Kim Sajet, 47
National Portrait Gallery director

Alma Mater: Melbourne (Australia) University, BA in art history and MBA; Bryn Mawr College, MA in art history

Early museum job: My first museum position was as a curator at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, a small regional museum in Victoria, Australia, that specializes in works on paper. I later became their director.

On mentorship: "Anne d'Harnoncourt was my mentor, and when she passed away it was a huge blow. At the time I had two mentors: Anne was a person of my world in the arts community, and then a man in the business community who didn't understand my world but brought a business perspective. I think mentors are really important, but it takes an enormous amount of time for mentor and mentee to develop a relationship. It has to start with respect."

Greatest career achievement: "My greatest career accomplishment is being entrusted with the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Here we combine art and history. In too many museums, these disciplines are held separately. Having been in museums for a long time, I know that they are 'safe' places where people from all backgrounds can exchange ideas, share the past and debate the future."

Thoughts on female leaders: "If you look at Smithsonian leadership, we have a male secretary and my boss is a man. . . It's still very male-dominated. They are the ones that are running the interviews. Having said that, I'm eternally grateful to the Smithsonian for looking past gender and nationality issues in my case. But if we could get more women on the boards, it would make a difference."

 


Rebecca Alban Hoffberger (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, 61
American Visionary Art Museum founder and director

Early museum job: None. She was the mime Marcel Marceau's apprentice in Paris, co-founded a ballet company, helped to establish medical field hospitals in Nigeria and studied alternative medicine and folk medicine in Mexico. She was a development director at the Sinai Hospital Department of Psychiatry when she first conceived of the national visionary museum.

Greatest career achievement: "That the museum is such a manifestation of the original dream. A place that would combine creative acts of social justice, because I view them as the highest form of performance art, with the full spectrum of creative imagery, science, philosophy, engineering and art."

Thoughts on female leaders: "I'm kind of pro-soul. I always feel like I'm a human being first.''


Doreen Bolger (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Doreen Bolger, 65
Baltimore Museum of Art director

Early museum job: A scholar on 19th- and early 20th-century American art, Bolger concluded her 13-year tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as curator of American paintings and sculpture.

Greatest career achievement: "I walk in the gallery and see school children experiencing these great treasures. Children who don't often get these opportunities. And it's all possible because of free admission. It's so exciting to have that kind of work going."

Challenge of museum leaders: "I think we're always reinventing ourselves. There isn't a choice about change; it has to happen as time goes by. Museums today are at a critical juncture. How do we get young adults interested? What will make them visitor, member and donor?"

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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