Dr. Johnnetta Cole

Director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art
Headshot of Johnnetta Cole

photo credit: Jessica Suworoff, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Music credit: “Annibelle June” written and performed by Abigail Washburn & Bela Fleck

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: For me, it's hard to describe a place that is more exciting than an art museum when that art museum is doing its work well.

Jo Reed: That was Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole has had a long and distinguished career as an anthropologist, university professor, college president, and author. Her focus has been African and African-American studies and women’s studies. Dr. Cole has 68 honorary degrees and a multitude of awards. She serves on the boards of both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. And she’s been Director of the National Museum of African Art since 2009. Since she assumed that leadership role, she’s consistently worked at innovative ways to open the doors of the museum to a wider and more representative community.

The recent special edition of Museum Day Live! is a perfect example. The Smithsonian Magazine sponsors an annual Museum Day Live! where museums across the country do away with admissions fees for one day. Well, spearheaded by Dr. Cole, the Smithsonian museums teamed up with the White House Council on Women and Girls, and launched a special edition of Museum Day Live! that focused on women and girls of underrepresented communities. Hundreds of cultural institutions across the country joined forces on March 12 to offer free admission and special programming for the day. The goal: to inspire and engage these girls and women to explore the nation’s museums and other cultural institutions. And inspire is one of things Dr. Cole does best.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: We created Museum Day Live! with an exclamation point to encourage women and girls from underrepresented communities to come to our museums and other institutions all over the United States to make museums a part of their lives. But in addition, and here is the bigger goal of Museum Day Live!: to interest women and girls, especially women and girls of color, in considering a career as a museum professional.

Jo Reed: Well I want to hear. How did the day go? Were you pleased with the results?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: May I give you just a few – a few figures –

Jo Reed: Please.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: – that say loudly and clearly it was a stellar day. First of all, around our nation 528 museums participated. Folk went into museums and other institutions in every one of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. On Museum Day Live!, there were 5.5 million Twitter accounts, 19 million impressions. And of course, what that says is that’s the number of times that people saw tweets or hashtags related to Museum Day Live! Some probably heard of Museum Day because the First Lady of the United States of America had made a video which we spread around in which she said, “These places belong to all of us.”

Jo Reed: Did you have special guests? Special programming?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: We were very, very honored to have members of the Obama Administration come to various Smithsonian Museums. I want you to know that going to the Cooper Hewitt in New York City was Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama. Tina Tchen, and she is the head of the White House Council on Women and Girls, went to the Anacostia Community Museum, a part of the Smithsonian. But who came to the National Museum of African Art? The Attorney General of the United States of America and the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Jane Chu. Can you imagine what this was like? A day when there were women and girls and men and boys, yes, experiencing a museum in some cases for the first time in their lives. And they’re in the space with Jane Chu, who at the beginning of a program simply told her story—what it was like to be the child of Chinese parents, to lose her dad when she was nine years old, and to discover music as a healing force. I deeply admire Jane Chu. And it was quite a joy and a privilege to have her in our museum.

Jo Reed: Did you program around career possibilities for girls and women in museums?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: In the Castle, which of course, is the first building at the Smithsonian, we organized something called Ladies’ Leadership Talks. And what that involved was an effort to introduce women and girls, overwhelmingly women and girls of color, to what it’s like to work in a museum. And so we set up seven tables at which girls and in a few cases women were seated, and then moving around these seven tables were women who work at the Smithsonian. Yes, a curator was there, but the point was to show that also there was a lawyer, someone from protective services, someone from human resources. We were inviting women and girls to see that museums which are such special places of creativity that they’re also places that need professionals of many, many, many, many types and forms. And so across the Smithsonian and 528 museums in our nation, programs were organized to tickle the hearts, to inspire the minds of women and girls so that our museums become, in their eyes, welcoming places and even places to work.

Jo Reed: Especially in Washington, I’m from New York where going to a museum, it’s $25; one can figure out why people aren’t going. But here in Washington, Smithsonian Museums are free. It is a treasure. Given that, why do you think there’s still a reticence on the part of women and girls from underrepresented communities from taking advantage of that?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Well, I would say for two reasons. One is that the opportunity in many cases has just never been presented. But secondly, and now I’m being very honest—because for many women and girls from underrepresented communities, when they do walk into our museums, our symphonies, our theaters, our ballets, they don’t feel particularly welcomed. They don’t see expressions of who they are. They don’t see in the exhibitions stories being told that relate in some way to their story. They don’t look up and see Latino, Native American, Asian Pacific, African-Americans in a represented way. And so we need opportunity to be there to come to our places of the arts. But once folk come, they’ve got to feel, “This is my place. This is where I am welcomed.” And while this is not a plea, obviously, for us to remove all of the classic works of European art and put up only the works of people of color, it does mean we can very creatively speak to people of color about those classic European works of art. Because the thing I know about us, as human beings, is that we have our own stories, each of us, but there are inevitable ways that the story of one person can be related to the story of another. So we simply have work to do. We know that in addition to people of color, we know that we must do better in making millennials feel that museums are places for them. And so to walk into a museum which stereotypically has been a place where we say, “Shh and sit quietly, and just look at that work of art.” That’s stereotypically how we might describe our museums. But we’ve certainly got to move far away from such an image. When the First Lady of our nation participated in opening the Whitney, she talked about her own experience as a young African-American woman going to places in Chicago which didn’t always seem welcoming to her. And she issued the challenge that we must make our art and culture institutions welcoming places to all of us.

Jo Reed: That sounds simple, but I imagine it’s very challenging.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: I’m not the only one thinking about this.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Thank goodness. In fact, I would say that we are in a period of time when art professionals really have these issues front-of-mind. And so there is so much positive agitation going on right now around our responsibility to make our arts institutions far more diverse and with cultures that are far more inclusive.

Jo Reed: When I think of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda, I mean, that's an example of telling a story of a Founding Father, but doing it in a way that just hits everybody where they live.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Did Hamilton ever think he would be rapped? <laughs>

Jo Reed: No, I don't think he did. <laughs>

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Yes. And I do know that under, I like to call her, the head sister of NEA, and I think no less under the head brother, bro, of NEH, there is enormous focus, sensitivity, to these issues of diversity and inclusion. And so, you know, we didn't get here overnight. Our museums didn't start to look like this overnight, and they're not going to just flip overnight. But I'm encouraged when I see the amount of focused action connected to spoken commitment.

Jo Reed: What about you and your relationship with the arts? How did you first get involved in the arts, and when did the arts become important in your life?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Well, in many ways, my story is so much the story of girls and women of color. I grew up without museums, operas, symphonies, without theaters being welcoming places for me. In fact, I was really not welcomed, because I grew up during the period of legal segregation in Jacksonville, Florida. But my mom, for whatever set of reasons, was deeply, deeply in love with the arts. She was trained in music. She became a businesswoman, but she had what we in the museum world would call, the eye. She could see and appreciate quality works of art, and she adorned our home with those works of art in reproductions. And so while I grew up under the horrific conditions of segregation, my mom made sure that I and my sister and my brother grew up loving the arts. In fact, my sister became an opera singer in Germany. My brother is still in the world of music. He is a jazz musician who's lived in Europe for the last 22 years, mainly in Paris. So while my mother's love of the arts was expressed professionally through my sister and my brother, I confess I cannot carry a tune if it is in a bucket.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Oh, but I cannot imagine having a good day if I have not heard music. I cannot imagine feeling that I'm living a good life if I am not in touch with the visual arts. So when I left Jacksonville, Florida where I was born, I went to the university when I was 15, Fisk University. And then I went on the exchange program to Oberlin. I remember the first day that I walked into the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin, and this is where my story sort of connects with Jane Chu's story. My father had died that year, when I was 15, and that college art museum became a special place of refuge and healing for me. I'm convinced that if I had not discovered anthropology at Oberlin, I'm convinced I would've studied and become an art historian. But anthropology did not draw me away from the arts, because you cannot understand and appreciate a people's culture if you do not understand their arts. And so how fortunate I became after so many years in the academy to actually end up in an African art museum.

Jo Reed: Were you always drawn to African art?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Always drawn to African and African-American art. My great grandfather, who I love to make reference to, was Abraham Lincoln Lewis. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, known as A.L. Lewis in Jacksonville, Florida, was the first Black millionaire of the state of Florida. AL Lewis, in 1935, got on a steamer with his second wife and traveled to Egypt. I have a photograph of them on camels in front of a pyramid, and that photograph sits on his desk which is in our home. And so Abraham Lincoln Lewis was very engaged with Africa. He came back from that trip to Egypt with two works that I treasure. One is an ebony letter opener with a carved head. He also brought back from Egypt a metal ink well in the form of a camel. Well, those two items were on the desk that is now in my home. And that is the desk at which my sister and I would play every Sunday after church. I know this sounds like just such a simple example, but when a child is introduced to a place on Earth and the culture and arts of that place, and introduced early in her life, it never leaves her. It just never does.

Jo Reed: It goes deep.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: It goes to the bone.

Jo Reed: Do you see art as being transformational?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: I have no difficulty in describing art as transformational. Yes, it is. It has powers that are extraordinary. I want to give an example. When the earthquake happened in Haiti, we, at the Smithsonian, tried to figure out, “What could we do,” that perhaps we were uniquely able to do. And we made the decision that we could participate in saving some of the cultural heritage of Haiti—Haiti's works of art. We ended up inviting others in our country to help literally save thousands and thousands of works of art. Those works of art- I would describe as being engines in Haiti's transformation out of those wretched days that followed the earthquake. But there's another way in which art should be seen as transformational in that Haitian situation. The, then, First Lady of Haiti organized with some of her country women and countrymen a camp to which children were brought to draw, to use art as a means to help them heal, to help them move beyond the trauma of what they had just experienced. And while the National Museum of African Art centers its exhibitions, its educational programs, its outreach, in the visual arts of Africa, we did an exhibition that we called The Healing Power of Art. We exhibited these artworks done by children and you could see the transformation in their lives. When you looked at the artwork that they drew immediately after that earthquake and how dark it was and how disturbing the images were, and then when you looked at artwork as they had experienced art therapy, you began to see more light, and you saw hope. Art can be transformational and it is.

Jo Reed: And finally, and of course, you touched on this at the "Museum Day Live," but I'm wondering what your goals are, your long-term goals are for the Museum of African Art?

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: Well, I and my colleagues who are just extraordinary professionals, we really hope that the National Museum of African Art will just get better and better at engaging our visitors in conversations about these diverse and dynamic works of African art. I use that term because if we're just presenting, it's not a very welcoming experience, but if we're inviting conversation, that's a different experience. One of the ways that I'm fond of describing our mission here is to say that we invite these conversations with the hope that our visitors will rethink how they think about Africa. It is a continent that is still so stereotyped, in many cases, so unknown. For too many people, it is a country and not a continent. And the idea that from those 55 nations on the continent could come these exquisite and powerful and extraordinary expressions of human creativity—that is not well known. And so my colleagues and I can only hope that we will get better at encouraging these conversations and doing so by, yes, putting up exhibitions of both traditional and contemporary African art, engaging in school programs that reach underrepresented youngsters, certainly creating, I would say, exciting and effective educational programs here in our own museum, and then reaching out way beyond this physical structure called the Natural Museum of African Art. So for me, it's hard to describe a place that is more exciting than an art museum when that art museum is doing its work well.

Jo Reed: And I think that's a great place to leave it. Dr. Cole, so many thanks, truly. I appreciate it.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole: You are more than welcome, Josephine, more than welcome.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

That was Dr. Johnnetta Cole. She’s Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Dr. Cole’s mission is to inspire a love of art especially in girls from under-represented communities.