The National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., located on the National Mall. The museum specializes in African art and culture and was established as a private museum in 1964. It officially became a part of the Smithsonian Institution in August 1979. Dr. Johnetta B. Cole was appointed the director of NMAfA in March 2009. And, it was in that capacity that Cole arrived at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia last week to appeal to the region’s arts and culture community for support of the museum.
“What has happened is that you have two institutions coming together,” explained African-American scholar and historian Molefi Kete Asante. “One institution is a personal institution of Dr. Johnetta B. Cole, and the other one is the National Museum of African Art. Those are two institutions that are working together to create in this country wonderful, powerful experience of an appreciation for our past and our history.”
Before assuming her current position, Cole had a long and distinguished career as an educator and humanitarian. Her work as a college professor and president, her published works, her speeches and her community service consistently address issues of racial, gender-based and all other forms of inequality. Cole is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women and Spelman College. She is the only individual to have served as the president of these two historically Black colleges for women in the United States. She is also Professor Emerita of Emory University from which she retired as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies.
“It’s not easy to make what I see is a compelling case for an art museum,” said Cole. “Especially in tough times, as people tell you ‘Oh, I understand, but that’s just stuff you put on the wall. We got to take care of education; we got to take care of health care; we got to end violence.’ Nothing could be further from the truth because we cannot truly live without the arts. And when things get tough, as they are now, that’s when the arts tickle our souls and remind us of where we have come from, and give us some sense of what the future can be. So, while I know we don’t in general honor this — because the first time things get tough, we cut out music and art in out public schools — we got to stop that because the richness that the arts bring into our lives cannot be denied. And secondly, art helps us to know who we are — and in ways that are intriguing and provocative. Rather than a straight up-and-down lecture, the arts invite us, in the most creative way, to connect with who we are.”
After beginning her college studies at Fisk University and completing her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, Cole earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University. Cole made history in 1987 when she became the first African-American woman to serve as president of Spelman College. At her inauguration, Drs. Bill and Camille Cosby donated $20 million dollars to the college; and during her presidency, Spelman was named the number one liberal arts college in the South. During her presidency at Bennett College for Women, an art gallery was opened and programs were initiated in women’s studies and global studies.
“There are certain things in the world that are so basic, and so fundamental,” said Cole. “We are not even alive [without them], and so for us as a people, not to support our educational institutions is blasphemy. I don’t want to hear about people standing up and singing the good old song from their alma mater — a wonderful HBCU — and they have not sent a dime in to support that school. And, I am certainly a little short of patience when folk want to stand up and declare how attached they are to their culture and their people, and will not support their cultural and art institutions. So at the risk of being trite, I will say that we have got to put our money where our mouth is.”
Cole, 74, has conducted research in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States, and she has authored and edited several books and scores of scholarly articles. She is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also a member of the American Association of Museum Directors. Cole has been awarded 55 honorary degrees and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the TransAfrica Forum Global Public Service Award, the Radcliffe Medal, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the 2001 Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Community Service from United Way of America, The Joseph Prize for Human Rights presented by the Anti-Defamation League, The Uncommon Height Award from the National Council of Negro Women, The John W. Gardner leadership Award from The Independent Sector, the Lenore and George W. Romney Citizen Volunteer Award from the Points of Light Foundation, Ebony magazine’s most influential 100 2010, George Washington Carver award 2011 and Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award. From 2004 to 2006, Cole was the chair of the board of United Way of America, the first African American to serve in that position. She has served on the corporate boards of Home Depot, Merck and Nation’s Bank South. She was the first woman to serve on the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises.
The roots of the NMAfA date back to a chance purchase of a $15 carving of the Yoruba people by Warren M. Robbins in Hamburg, Germany in the early 1960s. Robbins purchased another 32 pieces of African art a year later, and brought his collection with him when he returned to the United States, putting them on display at his home in Washington, D.C. After a newspaper article was published about his collection, visitors started appearing at the door and were welcomed in to view the works. Artwork in the museum comes from all parts of Africa, but most of it is from the region south of the Sahara. Represented countries include Mali, Cameroon, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Ghana and Morocco, among others. Most of the items in the collection are sculptures, masks, furniture and musical instruments made from wood. In 1963, Robbins purchased half of a home at 316–18 A Street Northeast that had been the residence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass from 1871 to 1877. When it opened in May 1964, it was the first museum in the United States dedicated to African art exclusively. In succeeding years, Robbins raised money to acquire the remaining half of the Douglass house, naming it the Museum of African Art. As the collection grew, he purchased adjoining residences, with his museum ultimately including nine townhouses, 16 garages and two carriage houses.
In 1979, Congress agreed to have the Smithsonian Institution assume management of the collection. Robbins served as the museum’s first director, remaining in the position until 1983 when he was named founding director emeritus and a Smithsonian senior scholar, and was replaced as director by Sylvia H. Williams. The museum relocated from its Capitol Hill townhouse to the National Mall on September 1987, and was renamed the National Museum of African Art.
“You feel a sense of standing in a part of history,” noted Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. “You feel the past and present. You feel the historic time, and there were so many historical figures, people who affected our lives as a people for years and years and years, so we are just honored. It’s exciting. It helps us regenerate our hope and spirit to do what we can to keep it all going for our people.”
The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, features African art from antiquity to the present and is located on the National Mall, 950 Independence Avenue, Southwest, Washington, D.C. Hours: Sun & Sat, 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. For more information, call (202) 633-4600.