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Smithsonian American Art appoints Tacoma Art Museum director

Stephanie Stebich has been named director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The head of the Tacoma Art Museum has been appointed director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Smithsonian announced Tuesday.

Stephanie Stebich succeeds Betsy Broun, who retired last year after serving as director since 1989. Stebich starts April 3.

“This is a dream position,” Stebich said. “This is an institution I’ve always admired, one of the jewels in the Smithsonian crown.”

Stebich, 50, became the leader of the Tacoma Art Museum in 2005. During her 12-year tenure, she oversaw a renovation that doubled the museum’s exhibition space, added 2,000 items to its 4,500-piece collection, and raised $37 million for a capital campaign that had an original goal of $17 million. “Art AIDS America” and “Edvard Munch and the Sea” were among the more than 100 exhibitions that opened during her tenure

Before Tacoma, Stebich worked at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was a fellow at the Guggenheim Museum. She serves as a trustee of the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums.

She takes the reins of a much larger institution, and one that shares a historic building with another branch of the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery. SAAM holds one of the most significant collections of American art in the world, including pieces by 7,000 artists ranging from Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley to Kerry James Marshall and Nam June Paik. In addition to its main building, the museum runs the Renwick Gallery, which focuses on decorative arts and crafts. SAAM has 124 full-time employees, a collection of 43,000 objects and an annual budget of $21 million.

The Tacoma Art Museum is a regional institution focused on the art and artists of the Northwest. In 2015, it had 100 employees and expenses of $7.1 million, according to tax filings. That year, Stebich earned $190,250.

Stebich said she is excited to be joining the sprawling complex that is the Smithsonian, with its “think tank of other directors and wonderful institutions we can collaborate with.”  Her appointment comes the day after President Trump froze hiring for federal workers, and a week after members of his administration discussed the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. As the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of SAAM, Stebich will earn $250,000, and will be paid with non-federal funds.

Stebich declined to discuss how the new administration might impact her work, saying this is an exciting time for the American art field, which is more popular than ever.

“Museums contribute to American life in profound ways, and I think SAAM, as the nation’s museum of American art, has a unique role in that conversation, and in telling stories — inspiring stories, amazing stories, diverse stories,” she said.