Cole will step down in March, according to the Smithsonian. She was not available for comment.
“Johnnetta is known across the Smithsonian for her spirit of collaboration, collegiality and passion for the arts,” Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton said in a memo to the Smithsonian staff announcing Cole’s retirement. “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.”
Cole has enjoyed a long and successful career in both museums and academia. With a PhD in anthropology, Cole was a college professor for decades before being recruited as president of Spelman College. After 10 years, she returned to the classroom, only to become president of Bennett College in North Carolina. She served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and as a member of the scholarly advisory council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
She is the author of several books and a highly-regarded speaker, especially on the topic of museum diversity.
Cole’s departure creates another senior level opening at the sprawling Smithsonian. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is close to identifying a successor to Betsy Broun, who retired this month. Postal Museum Director Allen Kane announced he will retire next month. In addition, the institution is looking for a Provost and leaders for the departments of advancement and education.
A combination of federal money and private donations will fund the hiring of curators and 15 research fellows, Skorton said.
“This is going to be a time of some renewal of the workforce,” Skorton said Wednesday, adding that the openings create an opportunity to diversify what he described as a “graying workforce.” “You can’t diversify an organization if you’re not hiring,” he said. “Because we are starting to hire a little more, maybe we can make some progress on that as well.”