Starting July 31, Davis will oversee the institution’s 19 museums, nine research centers, the National Zoo, the archives, libraries and office of fellowships and internships.
The new position was created by Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton and approved by Congress as part of Skorton’s plan to promote multi-disciplinary activities across the institution. Davis will earn $400,000 annually.
Davis, 55, has spent 25 years as a member of the art and American studies faculty at Smith College, a liberal arts institution for women in Northampton Mass. He served as the college’s associate provost between 2007-2012, overseeing its academic budget, sponsored research and a variety of science programs.
“What makes the Smithsonian wonderful is no one could have imagined it or invented it, and over the course of its long history it has grown and become a part of the nation, really, and now more international,” Davis said. “It is an unbelievable cultural force in the United States and throughout the world.”
In 2015, Davis took a leave to become executive director of the Terra Foundation’s Paris Center and Library, which coordinates the foundation’s academic programs in Europe and Asia. Founded in 1978, the Terra Foundation supports American art through exhibitions, programs and research and awards about $10 million annually.
Davis’s appointment highlights Skorton’s emphasis on raising the profile of the arts within the institution. Skorton, a cardiologist and college president, has come to champion the arts, while Davis said he is an art historian who has become an advocate for the sciences.
“When I was associate provost at Smith I was heavily involved in the sciences and I became interested in ensuring that all parts of society became interested in science,” he said. “I’m trying to do the same thing (as Skorton) from the opposite direction.“
Skorton cited Davis’s wealth of experience in welcoming him to the institution.
“His impressive career has ranged from academic distinction in the arts and administrative excellence in a distinguished institution of higher learning to international leadership in a major foundation devoted to American art,” Skorton said in a statement.
Davis is the author or co-author of six books and museum catalogues and a frequent contributor to the Smithsonian publications, “American Art” and “Archives of American Art Journal.” He earned his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a doctorate and two master’s degrees from Columbia University.
Richard Kurin, who has served as acting Under Secretary since October of 2015, will become the Smithsonian’s first Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador At Large.