Thirty years after becoming part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of African Art is more relevant than ever
By Johnnetta Betsch Cole
My arrival at the National Museum of African Art this spring coincides with a season of historic significance, opportunity, and – may I add – exhilaration. This month marks our 30th anniversary since becoming part of the Smithsonian Institution, reflecting a journey that began three decades ago in a series of Capitol Hill row houses and continues in the magnificent building on the National Mall that houses our world-class collection.
Such an auspicious occasion is deserving of an equally memorable celebration. On May 20, we will hold our first fundraising gala, “Africa Live(s)!” which has attracted an impressive list of honorary committee members – diverse leaders who not only share our commitment to the arts and cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora, but understand the value in supporting America’s only museum dedicated to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of traditional and contemporary African art.
Our honorary committee includes such distinguished names as Clifford Alexander, Jr., Maya Angelou, Angela Bassett, Shigeko Bork, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Esther Coopersmith, Nancy “Bitsey” Folger, Sam Gilliam, Dorothy Height, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Gen. Colin Powell, Michael Sonnenreich, Maurice Tempelsman, and Alfre Woodard.
Our extraordinary circle of friends is led by our dedicated board chair, prominent business leader and art collector Art U. Mbanefo, and co-vice chairmen Timothy Bork and R. Lucia Riddle. They will be joined by gala chairwoman Carolyn Jordan, current and former board members, ambassadors, donors, and civic and corporate leaders who will be present for our 30th anniversary awards to Ambassador Johnnie Carson; El Anatsui, one of Africa’s leading contemporary artists; Baroness Valerie Amos, the first black woman appointed to the British Cabinet (in 2003, as secretary of state for international development); and Sudanese model Alek Wek.
This will indeed be a “season” of rich offerings. The New York Times has hailed our current exhibition, “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas,” calling it “as rousing as a drum roll, as piquant as a samba, as sexy as Césaria Évora’s voice.” Not only that, but two brilliant artists, António Ole and Aimé Mpane, collaborated on a most remarkable work of art, currently on view in “Artists in Dialogue,” that is supported by our great partner, De Beers. The ongoing commitment of De Beers, Chevron (the gala’s lead underwriter) and many corporate partners is both heartwarming and critical in these challenging economic times.
In the coming months you will hear more about our journey, our hopes, and our dreams. We dream that every person who enters the museum will feel a connection to Africa. We dream of challenging visitors’ perceptions about this continent. We dream of partnerships – with museums, corporations, educational institutions, and with you. And finally, we dream that in difficult economic times, the arts lift us up, providing the inspiration and creativity that we all value so very much.
Johnnetta Betsch Cole was named fifth director of the National Museum of African Art earlier this year – a role that combines her passion for African art, respect for anthropological knowledge of the people and cultures of the African continent and involvement in the world of education. She was previously president of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women.