Johnnetta Cole Named New Director of the National Museum of African Art

Johnnetta Cole will start on March 2.
Johnnetta Cole will start on March 2. (Smithsonian Institution)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Smithsonian Institution yesterday named Johnnetta Cole, an anthropologist and former college president, as the new director of the National Museum of African Art.

Cole, 72, made national headlines in 1987 when she became the first African American woman to lead Atlanta's Spelman College, the country's oldest historically black women's university. During her tenure, attendance soared and the school's ranking on lists of the best liberal arts schools went up. Cole also spearheaded a $113 million capital campaign, $20 million of which came from Bill and Camille Cosby.

After a decade at Spelman, Cole taught at Emory University, also in Atlanta, and then served as president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. At Bennett, she led another successful capital campaign and founded an art gallery.

Cole said yesterday that her new position merges many of her interests, especially art and education. "I would say for my adult life I have had a passion for African art -- where it comes from, what it says and what it can do. I just couldn't resist this opportunity to combine that passion with my field of knowledge of anthropology and knowledge of the [African] diaspora," she said in a phone interview.

In making the announcement, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, formerly president of Georgia Tech, noted his previous work with Cole. "We are delighted that a scholar, author, educator and leader of such international stature will lead the National Museum of African Art at this opportune time," Clough said in a statement. "I have known Johnnetta for many years, and I look forward to working with her in her new role and in finding opportunities to use her talents to help with pan-institutional activities."

Most recently, Cole has been the chairman of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute, which is housed at Bennett. She has also worked closely with Richard Kurin, a cultural anthropologist who is the Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture.

The National Museum of African Art is part of a cluster of art galleries at the Smithsonian. The largest facility is the joint operation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which share a building.

The African art museum has struggled over the years because of low attendance, a modest budget of $6 million, its location underground behind the Smithsonian Castle and turnovers in leadership. The last director, Sharon F. Patton, announced last May that she was leaving at the end of 2008. Cole is expected to start March 2.

The museum has a collection of 9,000 objects, including 500 items obtained from the Walt Disney Co. in 2005. The acquisition, which other institutions also had sought, was seen as a validation of the museum's status.

Attendance increased to 322,000 last year, up from 310,000 in 2007; at one point the museum was drawing more children than adults because of its strong education programs.

"My task is to provide leadership for continuity and change. There is impressive work to build on," Cole said. She says she is worried about critics who want to cut funding for the arts: "There are too many people who make the fallacious statement that this art stuff is not fundamental, not essential to our lives. I think it is." She favors having a high-level person in the administration to oversee arts and humanities programs.

Cole is no stranger to the details or demands of a job in Washington. She served on President Bill Clinton's transition team that included education and the arts, and she worked with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy. She also is a member of the scholarly advisory board of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is expected to open on the Mall in 2015.

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