Johnnetta Cole is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. She took the position after stints as president of two colleges — Bennett College for Women in North Carolina and Spelman College in Atlanta, both historically black colleges for women.
She retired twice, and at 74, even she’s surprised about her new life in Washington. She’s built a national reputation as an innovative leader and educator.
Since Cole has come on board at the museum, it has increased its visibility with initiatives such as Africa Underground, a quarterly after-hours event that includes food, music and performances. New exhibits have garnered attention, such as last year’s “The Healing Power of Art: Works of Art by Haitian Children After the Earthquake.” In addition to using social media, Cole’s team has also reached out to new communities — partnering with the Taxi Drivers Association, for example.
On Saturday the museum will hold a community day.
Cole discussed leadership and the challenges of tough economic times.
How does your background as an educator of black women inform your leadership of this museum?
I think that’s such a great question and it’s obviously what I struggled with: Would my skill set, my leadership style and my passion for art be enough to help me work with my colleagues to let this museum keep going on its trajectory? . . . But when I think about it, I’ve been so fortunate to have experiences that have set me up almost as if it was inevitable that I would end up in a place like this. First of all, I’m trained as an anthropologist. It’s like a pair of eyeglasses, lenses that you put on that help you see the world in a particular way. And mainly what those glasses help you to see is the differences in human communities, but also the similarities.
. . . I think being an educator is a setup for this museum because I don’t care how exquisite are those pieces of traditional African art or how compelling the work, if we aren’t educating about this, then we’re missing our real calling here. And so to me, a museum must be about exhibitions, but no less about education.
This spring you won the Benjamin Franklin award for creativity. Tell me about some of the things you’ve been able to do in your short time here thus far.
At the core of my leadership style is a collaborative spirit. And so I don’t care what’s going on in this museum, it is really honest to goodness not me. It’s this — 28 women and men — working collaboratively. I think that we’ve really done a lot of harvesting of the low-hanging fruit. Things that may just sound like, well of course, but until they’re done, they’re not done. We have said, “Wait a minute, here is an African immigrant community in Washington, D.C. Why are we not more connected with that community?” So we now have an African advisory counsel drawn from North, South, East, West and Central Africa. On a very basic level, that’s really where creativity is. Sometimes we think it is only these huge ideas that require enormous amounts of money, when sometimes it’s just being sensitive enough to see something that looks ordinary it could become extraordinary.
How have you been able to raise funds for this museum?
I know that I, all things being equal, I am the major face externally for this museum. . . . But the secretary of the Smithsonian has a phrase that I love. He says, you know, “Fundraising is a team sport.” He’s right. . . . But I admit, in this challenging climate, you’ve got to have a really good compelling case. We have to make the case for why a museum like this is so critical. You may not be able to see it instantly, but what we do here is so fundamental. We help people rethink how they think about Africa. The other thing we hope happens here is that our visitors leave believing they’re Africans. They are to feel that this artwork came from the only physical place on Earth from which all humankind evolved. . . .
How are you attracting young people to this museum?
I’m telling you if you don’t get with the social media, you’re gone. I’m not kicking and screaming anymore. I understand the power of social media. . . . Our challenge is to make sure that the social media instruments that we use keep a human face, that it’s grounded in the humanness of what this museum is all about.
What is your long-term vision for this museum? What would you like to achieve during your tenure?
I don’t care how brilliant my vision is, if it is mine, it ain’t going nowhere. We have a strategic plan that is the vision of all of us. We interviewed 350 stakeholders through questionnaires, through direct conversations, collectors, contributors, folk who work inside the museum, our visitors. We talked to all of these folk to say, what do you want to see, tell us your vision. The most important thing again is, it is not my plan. It’s our plan. We do have an unfortunate notion still about “the leader,” about the “hero” or the “shero” of this institution. It is a highly destructive notion because that person isn’t going to be there very long. And if we’re imagining that person in that way, then no collaborative work is being done. There’s no sense of ownership throughout the entity. So I’d like my legacy to be, when I leave, I want people to say, ‘Did you notice Johnnetta’s not there anymore and that museum hasn’t skipped a beat?’ ”
What are some challenges?
We talked about one of them a little earlier. It is still a challenge to make the compelling case for the material support we need in this museum. It’s also a challenge for us that our staff is so small. Most people are shocked when we say 28 colleagues do all of this. . . . And the final challenge that I’m going to mention — it is a challenge, especially in a city like this — to attract visitors to this museum. I’m not going to shy away from it. Our idea, though, is that we can do this. First of all because we are capable of thinking about audiences that some folk have either not thought about or aren’t interested in. Museums are going to have to think differently about to whom this belongs. It will always belong to collectors of exquisite works of art. It will always belong to major donors who can give us the millions of dollars that we need. But this museum has got to belong to everybody.
Lottie Joiner is senior editor at Crisis magazine.