Diversity Woman Magazine

WIN 2017

Leadership and Executive Development for women of all races, cultures and backgrounds

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d i v e r s i t y w o m a n . c o m W i n t e r 2 0 1 7 D I V E R S I T Y W O M A N 37 Kurin was delighted. "So you figured out that the real reason I was calling was to ask you to put your name in the hat?" Kurin and others applied a full-court press. In 2009 Dr. Cole, with no formal education or training in art history let alone Af- rican art, became the director. Perhaps becoming a volunteer art museum docent would have to wait. Despite her initial passion for the job and belief that one must reach for the stars, she panicked right before she was officially appointed. "I felt that I didn't know enough, and that I was being asked to do a job for which I did not have the training," she says. "I actually tried to withdraw from the process. But Richard Kurin and Wayne Clough [at the time the secretary of the Smithson- ian] talked me into leaving my name in the hat. I am so glad they did." She reached into her deep store of aphorisms and plucked out the perfect quote to illuminate how she overcame her fear: "As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, said, 'If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.'" Cole says the fact that she does not have an academic back- ground in art history has not been an impediment. Running a museum in many respects is as much an educational mission as it is an art and cultural mission. A museum's mission of reach- ing out, educating, bringing people together—this she knows. Asif Shaikh says Cole's outsider status is an advantage. "She is not an African art connoisseur—she simply fell in love with it. African art is spiritual. It is all about the religious framework and the social order, and as an anthropologist she understands that art is an expression of culture. As an educator, she under- stands how to reach people. And precisely because she is com- ing from a broader perspective and not just a narrow curatorial place, she can speak more directly to a broader audience. Not being an African art specialist is a tremendous advantage for her and the museum. She has turned out to be the ideal person for furthering our mission of building cultural connections through art." Another reason Cole is the perfect fit for the position, says Shaikh, is that she is a uniter—which dovetails with the original mission of the museum. e National Museum of African Art was founded in 1964 by Warren Robbins, a white man (it joined the Smithsonian family of museums in 1979). From the museum's inception, its mission has been about much more than showcasing African art. It has positioned itself as a vehicle for cross-cultural communication. Cole fervently believes Robbins's conviction that while all forms of art can inspire and are capable of bringing people to- gether, African art is particularly suited to the task. "ere's so much divisiveness today in our public discourse, and so much attention is paid to what divides us, that our museum, because it is centered in the beauty and the power of the creativ- ity of African art, reminds us of our one extraordinary binding force—that is, all the world's people are descendants of the con- tinent of Africa," she says. Bringing together a uniting force, African art, with a natural uniter, has been a boon for the museum. She has initiated a dis- cussion series in which she sits down with a person outside the world of African Art for a lively talk covering a wide range of topics that amplifies our interconnectivity. She has also worked closely with the Ford Foundation on an initiative for increasing diversity and inclusion in the arts. "Dr. Cole has been the ideal leader for our museum," says Shaikh. "Uniting people has been her passion and gift through- out her life. Everyone feels comfortable in her presence. She lis- tens. She makes everyone feel good. She treats everyone in the organization, from top to bottom, the same. She does not have an ounce of prejudice for any culture or any person." "It is a privilege to be first. It is a responsibility to make sure you're not the last to hold that position." — Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole C ole is asked all the time, "What is the one piece of advice you give recent college graduates?" at question is not her favorite. How can there be just one pithy nugget to send young, idealistic students out in the world? Such think- ing is too simplistic, and so does a disservice to young women, she says. Still, when Diversity Woman joined the chorus, she was game. "I struggle to find just the right way to put this, but the mes- sage that I want to give to my young sisters is to say, 'You don't have to be against others in order to be for yourself.' By that I mean any young woman has not only the right but the respon- sibility to be for herself. But in order to do that, she doesn't need to be antagonistic to folks who are different from her. In fact, by opening up to folks whose identities are somewhat different from hers, she not only will have the joy of understanding the realities of someone who is different, but will, I think, begin to have an interesting new way of looking at herself and her own multiple identities. "And then, after saying that, if my young sister hasn't looked at me and said, 'Okay, enough. Enough preaching,' I will say one more thing: what good counsel do you have for me?" DW

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