Ngaire Blankenberg Named Director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art: ‘My Main Priority is to Hire More BIPOC Staff in Positions of Power’
IN WASHINGTON, D.C., the Smithsonian announced Ngaire Blankenberg has joined National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) as director. She started July 6. A consultant for museums and heritage sites around the world, Blankenberg has advised clients on some of the most pressing matters cultural institutions are currently navigating—finding innovative ways to connect cultural resources to new audiences, become more engaged in the community and society around them, address diversity issues, and approach decolonization strategies.
Over her three-decade career, she has also focused on fundamentals such as operations, business planning, and public programming and ambitious concept development initiatives that include envisioning museums of the future.
Ngaire Blankenberg is the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. | Courtesy Smithsonian
In statement about Blankenberg’s appointment, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said: “The National Museum of African Art embodies the Smithsonian’s mission to foster understanding, inspire dialogue and bring people together irrespective of language, culture or border. Ngaire’s leadership and experience will be invaluable in using the museum’s unparalleled collections and scholarship of African Art to further our reach, diversify our audiences and have a more profound impact on the nation and world.”
“Ngaire’s leadership and experience will be invaluable in using the museum’s unparalleled collections and scholarship of African Art to further our reach, diversify our audiences and have a more profound impact on the nation and world.” — Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch
Blankenberg’s hiring comes more than one year after the departure of Augustus Casely-Hayford—who was director of NMAfA for two years and departed in early 2020—and in the wake of July 2020 complaints voiced by former employees and former board members about a culture of racism and racial bias at the museum, they said dates back at least five years.
Deborah Mack began serving as interim director of NMAfA in March 2020. She came from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where she was the associate director for strategic partnerships. Mack served on the search committee that identified Blankenberg as the next director of the African art museum.
Kevin Gover, Smithsonian Under Secretary for Museums and Culture, chaired the search committee, which was established in summer 2020 and enlisted the services of the executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates.
Members of the committee included Melanie Adams, director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum; Melissa Chiu, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; curator Karen Milbourne and administrative officer Veronica Shaw, both from the NMAfA; Sandra Jackson-Dumont of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles; Harvard University art historian Suzanne Blier; Salah Hassan, professor of African and African Diaspora art history and visual culture in Africana studies at Cornell University, where he is also director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities; and three members of NMAfA’s advisory board.
A SELF-DESCRIBED STORYTELLER and strategic cultural consultant, Blankenberg began her career in television and documentary production before focusing on museums. Born in Winnipeg, she has lived in Canada, New Zealand, Africa, and Europe, most recently in Barcelona, Spain.
As a consultant, Blankenberg has an international portfolio advising institutions large and small. Key clients have included the National Gallery of Canada, Miami-Fla.-based Superblue, the Museum and Archive of the Constitution at the Hill (Johannesburg), and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. In 2017, she served as the head of content and strategy for Kossmann.dejong, an Amsterdam-based design agency. Previously, Blankenberg was a principal consultant at Lord Cultural Resources for eight years (2008–16), and director of Lord Cultural Resources in Europe (2015-16).
Blankenberg’s academic background includes a master of arts degree in media and cultural studies from the University of Natal, in Durban, South Africa, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
“Museums are institutions that carry a lot of systemic baggage from their colonial origins, but they are vital public spaces to reconsider how we connect and contend with one another and the planet, and where we can redefine, heal and reconcile,” Blankenberg said in a statement.
“The National Museum of African Art sits physically in a city with one of the biggest populations of African peoples in the U.S. Digitally it reaches far into the diaspora. I am so grateful for the trust being placed in me to continue to care for, build, interpret and share NMAfA’s fantastic collection, particularly in this new era of U.S.-African relations.”
“Museums are institutions that carry a lot of systemic baggage from their colonial origins, but they are vital public spaces to reconsider how we connect and contend with one another and the planet, and where we can redefine, heal and reconcile.” — Incoming Director Ngaire Blankenberg
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., with “Wind Sculpture VII” (2016) by Yinka Shonibare MBE, from the museum’s collection, installed in front. | Courtesy Smithsonian
NMAFA WAS FIRST ESTABLISHED in 1964, joined the Smithsonian in 1979, and officially became known as the National Museum of African Art in 1981. In 1983, Sylvia H. Williams (1936-1996), who was Black, was selected as the first director of the museum under the auspices of the Smithsonian. She oversaw the museum’s transition to the current building on the National Mall, which opened in 1987.
NMAfA is described as “the only national museum in the United States dedicated to the collection, exhibition, conservation and study of the arts of Africa” with “the largest publicly held collection of contemporary African art in the United States.” The museum’s collection of about 12,000 objects, includes ancient, traditional, and contemporary art.
In March 2020, NMAfA closed to the public due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions. A few months later, interested parties issued a letter to Bunch stating that more than 10 former and current Black employees had experienced “incidents of racial bias, hostile verbal attacks, retaliation, terminations, microaggressions and degrading comments.” The correspondence also expressed “outrage” that the “curatorial team has been exclusively White despite demonstrated interest amongst Black arts professionals and scholars in joining the institution.”
The unsigned, two-page letter from “a group of concerned former employees and board members” was first reported by HuffPost and The New York Times and The Washington Post followed up on the news.
Bunch said the situation was important to him on both a professional and personal level. “What I will do is evaluate this, look into this, put my own fingerprints on it, understand exactly what’s gone on and try to get to the bottom of it,” Bunch told the Times. “There is no room for racism at the Smithsonian. Too many times, I was the only Black person in the room and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.”
“There is no room for racism at the Smithsonian. Too many times, I was the only Black person in the room and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.” — Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch
In the year since the media reports, no findings or resolution regarding the complaints have been publicized. Culture Type asked the Smithsonian about where the allegations stand—whether a formal investigation had been conducted, the status of the deputy director/chief curator who was the target of some of the concerns raised in the letter, and if the complainants had received a response or report from the Smithsonian
Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson, said in an email, “Secretary Bunch personally looked into the allegations made by former employees last year, meeting with our Office of Human Resources and EEO. There were no improper personnel actions taken by the previous director. Lonnie expressed his full support for the deputy director Christine Kreamer and she remains in her position.”
The allegations span the tenures of Casely-Hayford and Johnnetta B. Cole who served as director of NMAfA, from 2009-2017. In a follow up email, St. Thomas said, “there was no finding of wrongdoing by either director.” Both former directors are Black. Kreamer is white.
St. Thomas also said the Smithsonian had responded to the individuals who sent the letter raising the complaints. She added that Bunch “has spoken many times about the importance of diversity both within the Smithsonian and in its public programs and exhibitions” and that the Smithsonian Institution is hiring a head diversity officer.
Mack, the interim director of NMAfA, who is Black, said last July that staffing shortfalls accounted for the complaints, not racism.
“A number of these issues are conflated with chronic understaffing,” Mack told the Post. The museum had 29 people on staff at the time. She said some employees were doing the work of two and three people. Given this, Mack was looking to fill 14 open positions, which would also provide an opportunity to address diversity deficits.
“I do not like the fact that, at present, there are no black or African curators. And just being black isn’t enough. In this field, we are a complex and multinational people. It’s our obligation to have that representation on staff,” Mack said to the Post.
“I do not like the fact that, at present, there are no black or African curators. And just being black isn’t enough. In this field, we are a complex and multinational people. It’s our obligation to have that representation on staff.” — Debrah Mack, Then-Interim Director
Asked whether any of the hiring Mack referenced had occurred, St. Thomas said the museum is currently in the process of hiring five new employees. “In addition to those five positions,” she said, “more are being advertised. By year’s end, [the] African art [museum] should be fully staffed.”
The appointment of Blankenberg begins a new chapter at the National Museum of African Art. Culture Type asked the new director via email about her initial plans for the museum and how she intends to navigate her new post. Blankenberg said “issues of anti-racism and equity have been a focus for my entire career” and she expects to be held accountable.
CULTURE TYPE: What are your initial priorities?
NGAIRE BLANKENBERG: Care for visitors and staff after this difficult period (which is ongoing), diversify staff, decolonize-Africanize-complexify (and figure out what that means in the here and now), build trans-local audiences in D.C. and diaspora—physically and digitally— measure impact, experiment, fail forward, and listen.
CULTURE TYPE: Last July, former employees of NMAfA expressed concerns about a culture of racism and racial bias at the museum in a letter to Secretary Lonnie Bunch. How do you plan to address the concerns, change the culture, and create a more inclusive, responsive, and productive environment at the museum going forward?
NGAIRE BLANKENBERG: This is always a big concern of course and issues of anti-racism and equity have been a focus for my entire career. My main priority is to (cluster) hire more BIPOC staff in positions of power (luckily we have several positions about to be posted), ensure Black and racialized staff are supported and empowered within the processes and systems of the museum so we can retain talent, and enact trans-departmental projects—all that good stuff.
I have personally experienced and have tackled similar issues as a consultant, so am not naïve to the systemic racism endemic to our profession and the myriad ways they manifest (and are sustained). That being said—the acting director Dr. Deborah Mack has done a lot of great work around workplace culture and processes supported by Secretary Lonnie Bunch (whose commitment to inclusivity and diversity is evident in the hires and processes put into place from the beginning of his tenure).
The staff are very dedicated and welcoming to me and my evolving vision, and we will all be working together to welcome new colleagues, identify biases (in people and systems) and create an environment of support and creativity. Please do check back in in six months. I expect my communities to hold me accountable.
After a more than 15-month closure during the pandemic, the National Museum of African Art is reopening July 16 with a new leader. Blankenberg is working remotely until September, when she is expected to move to Washington. In the meantime, she said she will be on hand July 24 at the museum, “to welcome visitors and listen to what their needs are.” CT
ON VIEW “I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” and “Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts” are among the exhibitions that will be on view at the National Museum of African Art when it reopens July 16, 2021.
FIND MORE about Ngaire Blankenberg on her website
READ MORE In 2016, Blankenberg’s essay “Making Space, Changing Space: Black People and New Museums” was published in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (subscription required)
In celebration of 30 years with the Smithsonian, the National Museum of African Art made a video highlighting its history, leadership (Sylvia H. Williams, Roslyn Walker, Sharon F. Patton, Johnetta B. Cole), and collections from 1979 to 2009. | Video by NMAfA
Ngaire Blankenberg is the co-author, with Gail Dexter Lord, of “Cities, Museums and Soft Power,” which was published in 2016. The pair also co-edited the “Manual of Digital Museum Planning” in 2017. Publications documenting the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s exhibitions and collections include “Royal Benin Art in the Collection of the National Museum of African Art” and “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.” Also consider “African Art Reframed: Reflections and Dialogues on Museum Culture,” “Emeka Ogboh: Lagos Soundscapes,” and “African Artists: From 1882 to Now,” forthcoming from Phaidon in October. “Contemporary African Art Since 1980” was co-edited by Okwui Enwezor and Chika Okeke-Agulu.