D.C. Women Arts and Cultural Leaders Speak to The Georgetowner

In honor of Women’s History Month and our special arts preview issue, we asked area arts leaders what it’s like working at the famed museums and theaters D.C. has to offer.

MOLLY SMITH, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, ARENA STAGE

Photo by Tony Powell.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

MOLLY SMITH: That’s easy: “Catch Me If You Can!” It’s a new version of this knock out pleasurable musical, and it’s fabulous and full of joy. It’s a story of fathers and sons, both biological and created. The music, the dancing, the costumes, the set, the sound, the lights — it’s just a thrill to be in rehearsals with these talented artists.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.
MS:Believe it or not, I first went to college to become a lawyer. A trip to Europe changed everything and cemented my mission to start a theater in Alaska — I decided to follow my heart and not my head. After finishing college and graduate school here in Washington, D.C., I moved back to Alaska (where I had spent my teenage years) with my then-husband who was in the military…. After 20 years there, I was ready for a new challenge, and was fortunate that Arena Stage was looking for an artistic director. I’m proud of the work we’ve done at Arena — including building the Mead Center for American Theater. My inspirations are varied — from my fantastic mother, Kay, and her dedication to social work and her love of the arts, to my partner Suzanne Blue Star Boy, a fierce spirit always pushing me to be my best. I’m inspired by so many artists, and even more so through this pandemic….

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization? MS: Edgar Dobie, Arena’s executive producer, says this well: it’s the balance of ambition and capacity. Of course we cannot reach our potential without ambition, but we have to be mindful of our capacity and ability to do the work. We would love to produce huge plays, but often that’s not the best decision. I’m sad sometimes when we’re in the midst of season planning and there’s a beautiful, giant, ambitious project that cannot overcome the challenges of both human and financial resources.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?
MS: Well, I was not the first woman to lead Arena Stage. In fact, the regional theater movement was founded by women. That said, the role of artistic director has been dominated by men, and so I make it a mission to seek out and highlight the work of other women artists. When I first came to Arena, there were only four other female artistic directors of large organizations. It’s changing but not as quickly as I had hoped.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?
MS: I’m proud of the artists and staff that work for and with us. I’m proud of building the Mead Center against all odds. I’m proud of having created one of the largest diverse audiences in the country. I’m proud of the Power Play Cycle where we’ve commissioned 25 plays, one for every decade of America from 1770 to the present. I am proud of the fact that we’ve focused on American plays, American ideas and American artists and we were the first large theater in America to do so. There really isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see something amazing in the Mead Center, because the people working here are truly arts warriors.

REBECCA ENDE LICHTENBERG, MANAGING DIRECTOR, STUDIO THEATRE

Photo by Teresa Wood.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

REBECCA ENDE LICHTENBERG: I can’t wait to complete, celebrate and share our first major renovation in 20 years. We’ll be welcoming back audiences to a vibrant, refreshed building that will support immersive theatrical productions…. And we’ll be inaugurating the new Victor Shargai theatre with a production of “The Hot Wing King,” a fierce comedy perfect for summertime fun.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.
REL: Having been an audience member at Studio for many years, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to step into a leadership role at an institution whose thought-provoking and meticulously crafted art I had long admired. Prior to coming to Studio, I spent 10 years a few blocks away at Theater J, first as the Director of Marketing and Communications and then as the Managing Director.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

REL: Coming out of the pandemic, re-engaging with audiences and making theatre a part of their lives again is a major challenge. We anticipate it may take years for audience sizes to reach pre-pandemic levels. In addition, supply chain challenges and labor shortages are presenting hurdles in producing the art.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

REL: Since Studio’s founder, Joy Zinoman, was also a woman, Studio has had a long history of women in leadership positions and I feel fortunate to be in an organization where that’s the case.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

REL: I am most proud of navigating the many pivots that Covid required and keeping the organization running through the pandemic, and of completing the Open Studio renovation, a project that had been in the works for years.

DIANE COBURN BRUNING, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, CHAMBER DANCE PROJECT

Photo by Virginia Quesada.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

DIANE COBURN BRUNING: Bringing together artists, patrons and audiences for new work live in the theater. I’m very excited about the June 16 premiere of our new Gatsby ballet — unusual in that in addition to dancers and musicians, we’re incorporating shadow puppets, films and moving screens. This is a collaboration with the same creative team who created Prufrock three years ago.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

DCB: In New York circa 2000, after years as a freelance choreographer with ballet, opera and theatre companies, I decided to put a stake in the ground on a few things I wasn’t seeing in our field: live music always in collaboration with musicians sharing the stage with us. Also, a focus on new work bringing artists and designers in for works by artists of our time. As a project company, we employ ballet dancers during their summer and winter layoffs. This makes me very happy — it is too short of a career for them not to be working and creating for so long every year. I didn’t see anyone else doing this so I decided I had to do it myself. We started in the summers in New York and then we moved the company to D.C. in 2014 and have expanded our theatre work and gone into the creation of dance films as well.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

DCB: Getting the word out about Chamber Dance Project. People tend to become passionate about what we do once they know about us and see us in rehearsal and performance — we tend to put most of our resources into the artists and work but I think we need to get a few huge billboards and signs on the sides of buses for our June season!

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

DCB: I have never thought about my gender in doing anything, I don’t see it as either an accolade or detriment. For me it is about the excellence and impact of the work.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

DCB: Providing the opportunity to create and share powerful and commanding new works with artists, patrons and audiences. Come see us in June!

JENNY BILFIELD, PRESIDENT & CEO, WASHINGTON PERFORMING ARTS

Photo by Scott Suchman.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

JENNY BILFIELD: I’m excited for people to share space with each other and our artists. A few events that leap to mind are: Davone Tines and Lester Green juxtaposing Bach with settings by works drawing on the traditions of art song, spirituals, and gospel music (March 15, Sixth & I); Lil’ Buck’s Memphis Jookin: The Show; audiences will recall his accolades as one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch and his collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma (March 25, Lincoln Theatre); and Eden with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and Italian early-music ensemble il Pomo d’Oro in a program exploring the essence of humanity and the power of nature (April 24, Strathmore).

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

JB: My goal has always been to make the world a safe place for the arts and the audiences who love them. While I trained as a composer and pianist, I was more interested in developing meaningful platforms for other artists to do their best work and in crafting partnerships, collaborations, and experiences that resonated. I sought roles where I could make a significant impact culturally and strategically. This in turn led me to lead a commercial music publisher, a major presenter in higher education and my current role at Washington Performing Arts. I am inspired by artists and love big challenges, very little frightens or deters me. At the end of the day, mission matters most and I am completely one with the mission of Washington Performing Arts: to champion the unifying power of the arts.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

JB: Not having a venue of our own is both a blessing and a challenge. On the blessing side, we can be in so many different neighborhoods and venues and match the artist, audience, program, and production needs, finding a way to say yes to artists with whom we want to work. However, on the challenge side, our branding is programmatic and reinforcing this in so many different spaces can be confusing for those who are new to us. That’s why we always have someone (usually me) introduce our performances, to remind folks that Washington Performing Arts has curated and produced the show!

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

JB: I feel an incredible sense of pride to have built a career within a field and profession that I love, which challenges and excites me every day. Simultaneously, I see an enormous opportunity to pave the way for others who want to make their mark as change agents. I frequently think about work/life balance versus work/life integration (which is my story being married to a composer and with a daughter in theater). My pleasure and joy in leading comes from my fully-immersive mindset, which is not for everyone.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

JB: I’m especially proud of programs that’ve been forged on partnerships and which tell uniquely American and Washington, D.C. stories, engaging a wide group of organizations and stakeholders. Our “Of Thee We Sing” celebration of Marian Anderson in 2014, with over 40 partners; our Mars Arts D.C. program, which I launched with support from Mars Inc. and Jacqueline Badger Mars to spotlight the vibrant arts-makers who make their life and work in Washington; the creation of our Junior Board, which has helped build a pipeline of experienced, engaged, mission-driven young professionals who are committed to volunteer and board service; and the expansion of our classical commissions, gospel music programs, and diplomatic and arts education partnerships.

THEA CANO, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, GAY MEN’S CHORUS OF WASHINGTON

Photo courtesy of The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

THEA CANO: For two years we’ve stared at our laptop screens for virtual rehearsals…. Now that we’re singing together in person and can hear the harmony, there’s tremendous joy and a newfound sense of community. There’s a connection with each breath we take to start a phrase, there’s the sound of the occasional “wow” from an audience member following a final cutoff, and there are tears of joy and laughter. It seems fitting that we’ll perform together on March 12 for “Brand New Day,” a celebration of chosen family.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

TC: As I was finishing grad school in 2004, I applied for jobs all around the country. I had been taught by my phenomenal mentor at UCLA, Donald Neuen, that whatever and wherever I conduct, I must strive to have an impact with my music. I saw the tremendous potential for that very impact at GMCW. Having grown up in Berkeley in the 1970s when my mother was heavily involved with the equality movement (and she taught me the social justice songs that went along with it), it was a natural fit.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

TC: We were founded in 1981 to be a safe place for gay men to come together to share their love of singing. Over the years we’ve grown to be a nationally recognized and respected arts organization. The challenge is maintaining a balance of honoring our roots as a gay men’s organization, evolving to be inclusive of people of all identities and orientations, and continuing to raise our voice for equality until everyone is treated equally and fairly. It’s hard work but tremendously rewarding.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution (and the first for GMCW)?

TC: Extremely proud. But I don’t feel the impact of my work has anything to do with my gender. It’s collaborating with people of all genders that makes this work incredibly rewarding and successful.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

TC: Our inclusive, mission-based programming. Being a large chorus of proud queer people is enough, but our goal is to start conversations, and to change hearts and minds. An audience member may not remember what we sang, but they remember how they felt, and they remember the stories we told. I am proud that we provide hope and a human connection. There is always someone in our audience who needs to hear us. If I had to choose a proudest moment working with GMCW (which is so hard to do!), it would be singing on the steps of the Supreme Court when marriage equality became national law. Among other songs, we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and when we got to the lyric “…o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave” and the crowd cheered, it confirmed that we had been heard, and history had been made (I get teary just thinking about it!)

SUSAN FISHER STERLING, ALICE WEST DIRECTOR, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS

Photo by Michele Mattei.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

SUSAN FISHER STERLING: I agree that we’ll have an awakening here in Washington. At the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), I’m most looking forward to our March 8 virtual International Women’s Day celebration and having visitors see our Positive Fragmentation exhibition– a collaboration between NMWA and American University.

I’m also looking forward to our first gala in more than two years. We’ll be honoring artist Judy Chicago, fashion designer Maria Grazia Chiuri of Dior, and founder of Ariel Investments Mellody Hobson. As some of your readers may know, the museum is in the midst of a major capital campaign, which is supporting a top-to-bottom renovation of the museum’s historic building at 13th and New York Avenue. As we have done throughout the pandemic, I’m looking forward to the NMWA continuing to be a vibrant and vital presence in the D.C. arts scene even while our building is temporarily closed to the public. The work on this historic structure has begun, which is truly exciting, and I’m looking beyond this season to Fall 2023 when the museum will reopen, refreshed, renewed and relevant as ever.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

SFS: The defining moment in my career came when I first met Wilhelmina Cole Holladay during a job interview…. It was for the position of associate curator at the then-new National Museum of Women in the Arts. I found Mrs. Holladay’s vision to be so compelling that I resolved to help this new idea grow and flourish. Thanks to the efforts of many over the past 35 years, the museum truly has become a strong presence in our nation’s capital. With such a powerful mission, I felt compelled to become a leader at NMWA.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

SFS: I believe the biggest challenges for my organization are bellwether challenges for the museum community when it comes to women’s creative accomplishments. Throughout history, women have been routinely erased, devalued, or relegated to a historical footnote. This is one of the reasons that the NMWA’s work is so essential and uniquely globally.

The NMWA is the first museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts. It provides a dedicated platform for women artists, who are so often underrepresented both within art history and contemporary art institutions. It’s the role of responsible institutions to address historical gender imbalances as well as charting a new path that’s diverse, inclusive, equitable and accessible to all.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

SFS: I have several thoughts on this subject for me as well as for women in the museum field:

First, I am pleased to have been chosen to lead the National Museum in the Arts. Washington, D.C. is an exceptional place for women cultural leaders because we serve the most educated public in the nation. Like our male counterparts, we can forge cultural and social connections that are deep, authentic, and build great institutions. These are the qualities people want us to demonstrate to maintain the highest degree of public trust. It’s important to recognize that there are at least 15 women directors who are leading museums here in D.C.

Second, women have outnumbered men in university art history programs and on staff at art museums for many years. Women now being selected for top posts at museums may be driven in part by broader social changes. Their positions at the executive level also reflect the fact that women arts professionals have long been among the most passionate and effective advocates for the arts.

Finally, women in leadership positions are critical to helping redress gender imbalance in the exhibition of art by women on museum walls. We need to imbue these organizations with a sense that women’s creative contributions are vital to communities and need to be more inclusive. I believe that women cultural leaders help make this possible.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

SFS: I’m fortunate to have spent most of my career at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I am most proud of the way we advocate for better representation of women artists and serve as a vital center for thought leadership, community engagement, and social change. Our blending of art and cause has now become an example for other art museums to follow. It’s gratifying to have been at the forefront of this momentous and ongoing cultural shift.

CARLA HAYDEN, LIBRARIAN OF CONGRESS

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

CARLA HAYDEN: It’s been such a joy to welcome visitors and users back into the Library’s magnificent buildings. I like to think that our “spring awakening” really started to bloom during the pandemic, when we redoubled our efforts to open our “digital front door” with online collections and virtual events that welcomed even more Americans to discover the wonders in our collections. We hope that our ongoing commitment to new audiences virtually will encourage even more Americans to visit us in person at the Thomas Jefferson Building. I never grow tired of seeing people gazing at the ceiling of the Great Hall and Main Reading Room! Even more than that, I’m excited to invite every American to discover some of our greatest treasures here in the world’s largest library and our nation’s oldest cultural institution.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

CH: I confess I am an “accidental librarian.” After college graduation, I was always at the Chicago Public Library in between job interviews. One day, someone asked me if I was there for the library job because, “they are hiring everyone.” So of course I applied and was assigned to a storefront library branch where a staffer offered story times for children with autism. She was enrolled in graduate school for library sciences, and I discovered the extraordinary opportunities that the profession had to offer.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

CH: Like many libraries and cultural institutions across the country, our biggest challenge is adapting to the “new normal” of pandemic and post-pandemic operations. We’ve learned a great deal about work, customer service, and the value of knowledge during the last two years, and what lies ahead for the Library, our city, our nation and our world will look different from the world we knew before the pandemic. Our challenge is to learn from what we accomplished during the pandemic, engaging new audiences virtually and much of our staff working remotely, and blend that with the traditional in-person services and experiences we provide to Congress and the American people.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women (particularly the first African American woman to hold the post and the first woman to serve since 1802 and the first professional librarian appointed since 1974) to lead an arts institution?

CH:As the first woman, and the first African-American, in this post, I’m truly grateful and humbled by the opportunity to serve our country in this role. It’s especially meaningful because African-Americans were once punished with lashes – and worse – for learning to read. As a descendent of people who were denied the right to read, the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is our nation’s great symbol of knowledge, is a historic experience I never take for granted. In 1845, Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read you will be forever free.” And now, 177 years later, everyone has the opportunity to be empowered by literacy.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

CH: The remarkable staff of the Library and many of my predecessors set the stage for us, but I’m excited to connect all Americans to the Library of Congress. No matter where you live, across this great nation, the Nation’s Library is your library, and books are just the beginning of what we have to share with you!

AILEEN FUCHS, PRESIDENT & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM

Photo by Beverlie Lord/Satsun Photography.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

AILEEN FUCHS: Museums should be about great experiences — and aren’t we all craving more in-person experiences with friends and family? This spring at the National Building Museum, our visitors can experience the power of architecture and design in really dynamic ways. From March 24-26, we will be hosting the Architecture and Design Film Festival:DC; on April 10 we invite guests of all ages to Planet Curious – A World of Climate Curiosity, our Climate Day Festival; and we are about to announce the opening of an incredible new augmented reality experience in late April. Stay tuned!

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

AF: My father’s an engineer, his father was an engineer, and there wasn’t a parking lot, public pool or water treatment plant in my hometown they didn’t have a hand in. … When the opportunity arose to consider leading the National Building Museum, I saw it as a culmination of my interests and experiences: adaptive reuse, exciting cultural engagement, civic participation, infrastructure and design and storytelling. … As I see it, we’re living in a triple crisis moment: trying to emerge from a public health crisis, in an ongoing crisis of racial and social inequity and very much in a climate crisis. These factors combine to make more people care more than ever about building a better world, which is at the very core of the mission of the NBM.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

AF: The opportunity and responsibility to lead the Museum at this important juncture is something I take very seriously, I have a deep sense of pride around my new role. I am grateful to learn from the very talented museum staff and excited about all we will accomplish together.

RACHEL GOSLINS, DIRECTOR, SMITHSONIAN ARTS & INDUSTRIES BUILDING

Photo by Farrah Skeik.y

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after 2 long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

RACHEL GOSLINS: As the weather warms up and we hopefully emerge from many of the pandemic restrictions, we are so excited to be able to fill our building with tourists and travelers, as well as our vibrant D.C. creative community, to experience our ground-breaking exhibition FUTURES and explore many possible and hopeful futures. We have a lot of weekend festivals and family programming that I think will be really dynamic and fun.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

RG: I came to this position from a varied and non-linear professional path, including careers as a lawyer, documentary filmmaker and White House arts wonk. I think being a little bit of an outsider to the museum world allowed me to bring some fresh perspective to the challenge of re-energizing this historic Smithsonian building. Especially in building our current exhibition, the Smithsonian’s first ever building-wide exhibit on the future, it was helpful to bring a background in non-collection based storytelling, advocacy and working with many partners to the project. We were able to do things that the Smithsonian has never done before.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

RG: This has obviously been a highly challenging time for many arts organizations. For us, the uncertainty of trying to curate and execute an enormously complicated exhibit about the future, during a time of pandemic and social upheaval, with so many logistical disruptions and not even being sure when we’d be able to open, was like playing Whac-a-Mole blindfolded. It’s only due to the talents of an incredible team and the enthusiasm of partners and the public that we were able to launch it so successfully.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

RG: I am fortunate that at the Smithsonian there are a number of amazing and inspirational women leaders leading our museums. Having that sisterhood to lean on for advice and support has been essential. D.C. is really fortunate to have so many strong female leaders of its cultural institutions, from the Smithsonian museums to the Kennedy Center, the Phillips Collection, the National Gallery of Art and others.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

RG: The challenge of bringing this iconic building back to life, after almost 20 years of sleeping on the National Mall, was extraordinary. It is one of the things in my long and varied career of which I am most proud. The Arts & Industries Building was the first museum on the National Mall, and our first national museum. Being able to lead the reopening of such a vital part of our county’s history has tremendous meaning for me.

DR. DOROTHY KOSINSKI, VRADENBURG DIRECTOR & CEO OF THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION

Courtesy of the Phillips Collection.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

DOROTHY KOSINSKI: Well, the Phillips was going strong throughout 2021, especially in celebration of our Centennial year! The beginning of our 100th anniversary year was devoted to our Centennial exhibition “Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century.” That was followed by our invitational juried show Inside Outside, Upside Down. In the fall, we featured three magnificent projects: “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History,” “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” and “Intersections: Sanford Biggers.” You are right, we are starting 2022 with a bang. We opened “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” last weekend. It’s a big show with 90 objects from all over the world, some 45 pictures have never been seen in D.C. It’s the first early Picasso exhibit in D.C. in 25 years. Most importantly, we draw back the curtain on some fascinating technical analyses that reveal the picture beneath the picture. It’s a story of art meets science.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

DK: I became director at the Phillips in spring 2008, following a curatorial career of over 30 years. My curatorial work took me from New York to Paris and Basel, and then back to the states to the Dallas Museum of Art. It is a joy to shepherd a distinguished collection such as the Phillips and one that matches my own scholarly expertise of 19th and 20th century European art so perfectly. It has been especially interesting to shift the spotlight somewhat to the art of our own time, a key interest of our founder Duncan Phillips and his painter wife Marjorie.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

DK: Obviously, every cultural organization faces financial challenges. That’s one reason I’ve invested so much time and energy and creativity in enlarging our endowment, to provide sound financial footing for the next 100 years. During the last five or six years, we have been much more focused on fulfilling our responsibilities to our communities, our service to schools, to the elderly, to advancing our work around equity and diversity. Of course, the pandemic threw everyone a huge challenge in terms of health, organization, staffing, etc.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

DK:I’m proud to be a woman leading the Phillips. I know that my background and point of view enhances our capacity to be nimble, responsive, and open as an art museum in the 21st century. I’m keen to open the door and let down the ladder for the next generation of women leaders.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

DK: I’m especially proud of three major accomplishments: instituting back in 2018 our DEAI program of paid internships and fellowships led by a Chief Diversity Officer, the first at a U.S. art museum, as far as we know. This program has touched and changed every aspect of our work and institutional culture. I would mention too, our profound engagement in community, especially around our portfolio of art and wellness initiatives. In addition, I’m proud of our vital and dynamic program of contemporary art exhibitions and projects.

DEBORAH RUTTER, PRESIDENT, KENNEDY CENTER

Courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

DEBORAH RUTTER: What a difficult question for me to answer, as there is so much happening this spring! The joy of artists and audiences once again being in the same room to experience the live performing arts has been palpable throughout the Center this year, particularly as we celebrate our 50th Anniversary. Some of the upcoming programs I’m most looking forward to are tied directly to that celebration of our first half-century. In March we premiere “Written in Stone,” four world premiere works from the Washington National Opera inspired by Washington, D.C.’s iconic monuments. Later that month, the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington National Opera, and our Social Impact team launch “The Cartography Project,” a multi-year commissioning project that engages artists from around the nation to map Black dignity as a cultural response to extrajudicial violence. In April and May, young people and their families will be treated to two world premiere theatrical adaptations of stories by our brilliant Education Artist-in-Residence and MacArthur Genius Grant awardee, Jacqueline Woodson.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

DR: I’ve always been motivated by the power of the arts to change lives, create community and speak to the importance of recognizing and appreciating all people and all interests…. My good friend, Yo-Yo Ma and I developed the concept of Citizen Artist many years ago — the concept of all people connected to the arts using their talents to work towards something bigger than themselves and contributing to society…. My role at The Kennedy Center is a performing arts administrator’s dream: all of the arts “under one roof” and truly making the world a better place.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

DR: The pandemic caused significant financial challenges for the Kennedy Center, as we had 18 months of no ticket sales, and we normally rely on that earned income for approximately 70 percent of our budget. I’m incredibly grateful for the generosity of our donors and the federal funding that was so crucial in getting us through the last two years, but we still face a significant deficit. The real challenge for me is to meet these financial issues head-on while delivering on our Congressionally mandated mission as the National Cultural Center, living memorial to John F. Kennedy, and hub for arts education that serves more than 1.5 million students across the country each year.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

DR: Women have been a driving force behind the non-profit arts for a long time. At the Kennedy Center alone, we make up nearly 70 percent of the administrative staff. I have been leading arts institutions since 1986, and in that time there has certainly been a change in arts leadership. However, there is still much work to be done, particularly in recognizing the work of women of color within our industry.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

DR: This has been a period of great change. Just before the pandemic, in September 2019 we opened the REACH, the first-ever expansion of the Kennedy Center with flexible spaces that open up new possibilities for innovative artistic work and community engagement. I am also deeply proud of the work we’ve been doing to ensure that as the nation’s center for the performing arts we are truly representing the nation with the inclusion of Hip Hop Culture and Comedy as core programmatic areas, while we embed Social Impact initiatives throughout the Kennedy Center, National Symphony Orchestra, and Washington National Opera, sparking critical conversations around race and discrimination.

SUNNY SUMTER, PRESIDENT & CEO, DC JAZZ FESTIVAL

Courtesy of Sunny Sumter.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

SUNNY SUMTER: Looking forward to working with my phenomenal team to begin planning the DC JazzFest which has permanently moved to September, and working on strategies with an incredibly smart board of directors that advance my organization’s growth.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

SS: I started at DC Jazz Festival by leading partnerships and engagement initiatives for Founder Charlie Fishman nearly 15 years ago. The organization was called Festivals DC and at that time produced the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival named after DC’s most famous jazz artist. Growing with the organization, I became managing director, executive director and now serve as CEO. What inspired me along with way is witnessing firsthand the interactions between artist and audience. Music is such a connecting force and jazz represents the one of the best connectors that is our humanity. I started interning at the Smithsonian Institution with Niani Kilkenny at Program in African American History and working across the Smithsonian campus with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Chamber Music Society and Smithsonian Associates. I worked as program coordinator at the Rhythm and Blues Foundation before taking a position at The Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program. I continued to have a professional singing career that spent a number of years abroad in Italy performing for Sergio Caputo. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove inspired me and encouraged me to return to complete my degree at Howard University where I trained with pianist and composer Geri Allen and vocalist and drummer Grady Tate. I fell in love with jazz, majored in music business, minored in jazz studies and have spent the rest of my days championing this music we call jazz. From the bandstand to the audience, jazz invites everyone to the table. I love my job and I am inspired almost every day to lift up the artists creating the music and to find new ways of presentation.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

SS: The looming challenge for our nonprofit is solidifying a place for the future of this music called jazz. Keeping our artists, many of whom have college degrees in jazz studies or performance, employed, keeping our audiences (both jazz enthusiasts and casual fans) excited about the experience of jazz and creating opportunities for the music to thrive as an important art form. Creating more experiences that bring casual fans into the jazz village, getting TV One, The Recording Academy, BET, the American Music Awards and other major platforms to give jazz a seat at the table with the other music forms…. Jazz is worthy of the same funding as other art forms. Each and every day I challenge myself to approach private-public partnerships with an infectious level of enthusiasm that invites corporate sponsors and city stakeholders to find the DC Jazz Festival and jazz presentations irresistible. Because it is.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

SS: Opening the door and keeping the door open for others to come in is my motto. We live in a different time than our parents and their parents. While the ceiling can seem unreachable, if you want it, go get it. Leading well takes an enormous amount of time and energy — so does equity and inclusiveness, because of the accelerated space at which we operate. Time is just traveling a lot faster than it did even 15 years ago and the consumption of information and work is at a faster pace. I’m glad I have a great deal of energy to keep up. I am grateful to the many who have opened a door for me and gave me, a young black woman, an entryway to work at Aspen Institute in Communications Policy with a music business degree and to learn from the bottom up.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

SS: I am most proud of watching my two children witness my journey with inspiration in their eyes and watching 38,000 people return to the DC JazzFest at The Wharf after the pandemic with so much appreciation to be together, to celebrate life and interact with each other. [It was great to see] people from all walks of life connecting around jazz, serving as a platform to show us just how connected we all are.

JULIE KENT, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, THE WASHINGTON BALLET

Photo by Dean Alexander.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

JULIE KENT: My first major production for The Washington Ballet was “Giselle” in 2017, and it marked an important artistic milestone for the company. Later this spring, we’re remounting the production. I’m so looking forward to witnessing how much the company and individual dancers have grown over the last five years and I’m excited to share that growth with our audiences.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

JK: Before I moved to New York as a teenager to start my professional career, I lived in Washington and studied at Maryland Youth Ballet. One of my first inspirations, and an inspiration to this day, is MYB’s founder, Ms. Hortensia Fonseca. She’s my teacher, mentor, dear friend and my first example of how to lead an arts organization. I believe it is my responsibility to hold up American ballet as an art form, and to be a part of preserving, celebrating, and advancing the art form whether that’s on stage, in the studio, or in an executive role. In that sense, going from the stage to an artistic administration position felt natural. Leading TWB is my next step in serving as a steward of the art form.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

JK: TWB has a proud history of woman leaders; our founders, Lisa Gardiner and Mary Day, were considered pioneers in their day. I think of myself as an artist first, but of course I’m also a woman, and one of my proudest roles is that of “mom.” There were generations of professional dancers that didn’t necessarily feel like they could have a thriving career and a family. I hope that part of my legacy is as a role model to other dancers who might want to become parents.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

JK:We talk about always moving forward. That sense of positive momentum, of growth, is baked into The Washington Ballet. I’m especially proud that the Washington Ballet moved forward, resolutely and in spite of the challenges, these past two years. When live performances were cancelled, we found a way to work digitally; when social distancing limited how many people could rehearse, we reorganized into smaller groups; when we couldn’t be inside, we danced outside. We found a way to move forward, always.

REBECCA READ MEDRANO, CO-FOUNDER/EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GALA HISPANIC THEATRE

Courtesy of the GALA Theatre.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

REBECCA READ MEDRANO: Yes, I think there should be an awakening. I think everyone is ready for it. The important thing, emotionally and psychologically, is that people want to gather and have in-person experiences, like theater. They also want to stay safe, so they are cautious. I think we at GALA navigated that very well, since we opened before. Other theaters did, but we put practices in place to keep both audiences and artists safe, such as installing an entirely new HVAC system to filter and turn over air, requiring proof of vaccination, and mandatory mask wearing. We were able to start with social distancing performances and when pandemic numbers dropped, we were able to perform at a larger capacity. We also did innovative things like hanging plexiglass in front of the stage, or having artists perform behind plexiglass. We are looking forward to performing our upcoming musical, “ON YOUR FEET! En espanol,” to full capacity houses and welcoming back patrons who have been isolated for two years.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

RRM: I lived in Spain and Mexico as a child and had adopted sisters from Bolivia, so I was immersed in Latin American culture and language from a young age. I studied dance all my life, and then attended Smith College and graduated with a Masters in Latin American History and Culture, and a minor in Theater. I was dancing in New York City, had an accident, and was encouraged to return to D.C. (where I had family) to audition for a bilingual theater program being run out of the Back Alley Theater at 14th Street and Kennedy (not too far from where GALA at Tivoli is now located). There I met my future husband, Hugo Medrano (who had fled Argentina), with whom I founded GALA, Grupo de Artistas LatinoAmericanos, in 1976. We both had a vision that is relevant today: the need to bring many different Latino/x cultures together to celebrate their rich culture and language and share that culture with a broad public. D.C. was ready for this vision since many political exiles were fleeing repressive military regimes in Latin America at that time and were settling in D.C. We became leaders in response to a need in the community to provide a space where artists could create freely, express themselves, and stay in touch with their cultural roots. That was GALA then and that is still our mission as leaders of GALA.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

RRM: The biggest challenge is human resources. We are much too small of a staff for all the programming we do, but every time we hire a new staff person and train them, they move on in a year or two. I think it is because in their perception, they won’t have as many opportunities in a culturally-specific theater of color as they would in a larger white institution.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

RRM: I think women have always been leaders, or the force behind the male leaders. It is just that women don’t tell that story. I do what I do because I believe in GALA’s mission, I love my work, and I love serving our community. I do not do this to prove that I can be a leader. You lead by example, as they say.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

RRM: I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve kept our vision and mission clear throughout 47 years and that today I see the children of parents who used to come to the theater bringing their own children to GALA for our GALita plays and other programs. It means we’re passing something on and inspiring future generations, and that makes my heart sing.

ANTHEA HARTIG, ELIZABETH MACMILLAN DIRECTOR OF THE SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

Photo courtesy of The National Museum of American History.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

ANTHEA HARTIG: We are excited to see our visitation steadily approach our pre-pandemic levels. It’s gratifying to see so many people from around the country and around the world back in our building, especially with so many new and exciting offerings on the horizon. This summer, we’re honored to be hosting “!Presente! A Latino History of the United States,” the inaugural exhibition of the emergent National Museum of the American Latino. It will be located in the new Molina Family Gallery on the first floor of the National Museum of American History. Later in the year, we’ll be opening “Entertainment Nation/ Nacion del Espectaculo” a fabulous new exhibition that will showcase our unparalleled theater, music, sports, movie and television collections, and will look at how entertainment has both shaped and provided a forum for important national conversations.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

AH: James Baldwin wrote that “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” I have dedicated my career to sharing the passion that I have for the study of this wondrous and difficult history with others, in my previous work with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and then leading the California Historical Society. I just celebrated my third anniversary leading the National Museum of American History, and it remains the great honor of my life to be leading the world’s most visited history museum. We have a tremendous platform, and are committed to using it to help shape a more compassionate future.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

AH: We have set an ambitious goal for ourselves: to become the most accessible, inclusive, relevant, and sustainable public history institution in the country. We want our visitor demographics to match the makeup of the country by 2030. These are not small goals and they won’t be achieved overnight. We are also–like everyone else–still working in a global pandemic, with the ever-present impact of ongoing racial and climate crises. We are in the middle of an enormous shift in how and where we work, and we can’t underestimate the psychological impact of such a massive change to our everyday lives. Of course, history itself is currently being used as a wedge in a divisive culture war in and out of schools across the country, so we are facing many challenges. Thankfully, I have an amazing and creative staff and in partnership with our colleagues across the Smithsonian, we feel we can play a part in helping the country move forward. Because while we are a history museum, we’re actually concerned with the present and the future. As we approach the 250th birthday of the United States in 2026, we’ll be helping lead the conversation not only about where we’ve been, but where we go from here. What kind of nation will we be? What are we continuing to build together? Of course we will continue to focus on our role as steward of the nation’s collections, which we hold in trust for the people of the United States.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

AH: I’m proud to be the first female director of the National Museum of American History and to be one of a number of women making change across the landscape of the public humanities. The Smithsonian is home to so many impressive women who are shaping this Institution for the future … as well as countless other arts and culture organizations. It’s fantastic to be a part of this group of leaders, and you can see the impact as the field works towards true equity, diversity, and inclusion. I know we’re also all excited for the next generation of leaders, who won’t need to be firsts!

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

AH: Despite the tumultuous past few years we have managed to push our museum forward, to tackle difficult topics and find ways to bring people together. We’ve been on the ground collecting the history of the past few years as its been happening, and working with communities across the country to ensure that our exhibits and collections reflect the full richness of the United States. We are on our way to building a more accessible, inclusive, relevant and sustainable National Museum of American History, and I’m so happy to be a part of the change.

ELIZABETH VON HASSELL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SPORTING MUSEUM

Photo courtesy of the National Sporting Museum.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

ELIZABETH VON HASSELL: The museum will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in June, with an exciting “Highlights” exhibition that will encompass all galleries…. The opening and anniversary celebration is being kicked off with an on-site gala.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

EVH: Possessing true and authentic passion for our mission to promote the art literature and culture of traditional field sports as well as a burning commitment to advocate for the conservation and preservation of open space and waterways, has helped make my pathway to the Executive Director and made the position at the NSLM a perfect fit. Successful fundraising of over $50 million at James Madison’s Montpelier as Director of Development with President and CEO Kat Imhoff, was a critically important career step. One of the challenges of working in the arts is that fundraising continues to grow as one of the most important aspects related to the sustainability of the organization, and is increasingly a required talent and skill for any executive director.

The majority of my career was spent in the corporate world as a marketing executive, managing and working with high performing teams on a national basis. I’ve never been a believer in titles, silos, or rigid hierarchy, and find it much easier to lead a group that is motivated, inspired and encouraged without micromanaging. The NSLM is a donor, community and visitor-centric organization that focuses on relationships. The rewards are seen in the abundance of achievements that often by far exceed initial goals, and this culture encourages a collegial, yet goal driven work environment where successes are shared and enjoyed as a team.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

EVH: Even though I would not without question, ever change where we are located, in Middleburg, Virginia, one of the most beautiful areas in the world, the location does pose some challenges regarding how many people visit our Library and Museum. Additionally, I think fundraising for nearly all institutions, if looked at honestly, is one of the biggest challenges facing non-profits in the arts, especially fundraising for non-bricks and mortar areas such as raising endowment or operating dollars. Thankfully, our NSLM team is enjoying continued success and breaking records raising funds for exhibitions, programs, acquisitions, and our endowment.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

EVH: It is an honor, and privilege to be the Executive Director of the National Sporting Library and Museum, and I will always be humbled for being recruited by our Vice-Chair, Jacqueline B. Mars, and Board, who believed in my talents, work ethic, and leadership abilities. With this opportunity, comes a strong commitment and responsibility for me to mentor and help women of all ages and backgrounds, when possible, with their professional careers.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

EVH: Building an outstanding team that has not only creatively insured that the NSLM stayed open, and pivoted continually to offer a variety of creative, interesting virtual programs, smaller in person programs, safe outdoor events, and exhibitions, but this team worked tirelessly building strong relationships with our members and community at all levels. Encouraging a focus on solutions, not the problems, especially through these challenging times has insured the NSLM has had one of its most successful years in their history. Being a relatively new organization, sustainability of our future is paramount, and with the support and leadership of our engaged Board, we have been able to nearly double our endowment and my utmost goal is to not only lead and inspire a team of Library and Museum professionals, but to continually develop and execute a business plan that ensures our success long after I am gone, long after we are all gone.

MELISSA CHIU, DIRECTOR, HIRSHHORN MUSEUM & SCULPTURE GARDEN

Photo by Greg Powers.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

MELISSA CHIU: This Hirshhorn Museum is busy. “One with Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection” opens April 1, building on the legacy of our 2017 blockbuster that drew record attendance, with a showing of two infinity mirrored rooms by the artist. Another major project is our exhibition with Laurie Anderson, and many additional events this spring across the city, from film screenings to concerts.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

MC: I’m originally from Australia where I earned my Ph.D. in contemporary Chinese art. I moved to New York and worked as a curator. In 2004, I was appointed director of the Asia Society Museum where I launched their contemporary art collection in dialogue with their Rockefeller Collection of Asian art. I joined the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2014. As Director, I am focused on expanding the lens of modern and contemporary art and public access to it.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

MC: Space! Joseph Hirshhorn’s foundational gift established the permanent collection of the national museum of modern art. Since 1974, the Hirshhorn’s collection has grown through acquisitions and transformational gift,s including one promised by Washingtonians Barbara and Aaron Levine. Our brutalist campus design is iconic but it has challenges. Late last year, the Hirshhorn’s proposal for artist-architect Hiroshi Sugimoto to revitalize our Sculpture Garden was approved. We’ll break ground this fall. When we complete this design, it’ll be our 50th anniversary season, and our outdoor galleries by the National Mall will be more flexible for the latest in contemporary art and ready to welcome 35 million visitors every year.

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

MC: Representation is as important in the boardroom as it is in our galleries.

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

MC: Technology is an important component of our visitor experience. In 2018, we launched Hirshhorn Eye, a revolutionary in-gallery guide that opens video messages from artists using the image recognition on your smart phone. During the pandemic, the Hirshhorn was closed for 524 days. Through inventive programming and the participation of living artists including Marina Abramovic, Arthur Jafa, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Yoko Ono, the Hirshhorn drew a million virtual visitors. We’ve reopened as a hybrid museum with a local, national, and global audience. As far as what I’m most proud of? This is contemporary art, so stay tuned.

STEPHANIE STEBICH, THE MARGARET AND TERRY STENT DIRECTOR OF THE SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM

SAAM’s Director Stephanie Stebich in front of Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; photo by Libby Weiler.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

STEPHANIE STEBICH: I am counting the days until the Renwick Gallery’s 50th anniversary exhibition opens May 13th. It is a chance to share what we have been collecting: the best of American makers, who are helping define our time and inspire our future — just as the title promises: “This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World.”

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

SS: I was fortunate to be invited to come work at the Smithsonian–an offer I embraced given the reach, relevance and impact of our national museums. I mark my fifth year at SAAM this April, and in those years have experienced whipsaw moments from record attendance and phenomenal support to a government closure and the pandemic emergency status we are now emerging from with renewed energy about the museum’s mission. Remarkably our dedicated staff met the moments we have faced with resilience and grace to keeping the digital doors open, even when we were closed temporarily. We’ve learned a lot about our audiences and our abilities for delivering on our commitment to exploring American art with global connections, particularly in a time of renewed questions about our shared American identity.

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

SS:Balancing how to be a national museum that’s welcoming and representative of all, while maintaining our strong connections with our local audiences. Notably, our last audience survey confirmed that 51% of our visitors are repeat visitors!

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?

SS: I follow in the steps of my predecessor Betsy Broun who was one of the longest serving directors at the Smithsonian, and for a time, the only female director at the institution. Now there are more woman directors leading D.C. area cultural institutions than ever before!

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

SS: It is difficult to pick just one thing. So I will highlight a recent project where we made our collections and American stories more relevant and engaging. We recently published a series of wonderful digital comics called “Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists” which are short takes on artists’ lives each drawn by a student-illustrator through a partnership with the Ringling College of Art and Design. I also prioritize educating the next generation of scholars in the field of American art and culture, and champion our virtual educational programs such as our real-time video conferences for K-12 classes around the world. That’s how we bring American art to American kids abroad.

RHEA COMBS, DIRECTOR OF CURATORIAL AFFAIRS, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY

Photo by Abe Mohammadione/Ideas United.

GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

RHEA COMBS: There is so much to be grateful for as we cautiously move out of a rough of couple years and into a new phase of life. I look forward to the exciting exhibitions we have coming up at the National Portrait Gallery. Topping the list is the museum’s national triennial, the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. It opens in April and really speaks to this moment we’ve been living through.

THE GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

RC: I am proud we are expanding the permanent collection and re-envisioning the stories we tell through our permanent collection. It is important to remain steadfast to our mission by highlighting through history and portraiture some of the most meaningful people of our lives. I want this organization to be an inspiration for all generations — past, present and future. In order to do that, we need to make sure the portraits reflect the diversity of this nation. Together we are committed to that notion and that makes me feel extremely proud.

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization?

RC: Leaders set the tone of an organization. I’ve been inspired by the women in my family who always found ways to be resourceful and creative. They would ask thoughtful questions of each of us. I carry that attitude into the workplace — consistently seeking ways that will allow the organization to grow by asking if we’re doing something because it makes sense for the organization or just accepting something because it has “always been done that way.”

GEORGETOWNER: Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?

RC: I recall while in graduate school one of my advisors kept pushing me towards teaching, but I was clear I wanted work in museums. He didn’t understand why, he figured a Ph.D. meant one teaches. I used that questioning as fuel and made sure I had as many opportunities as possible, in all types of museums. I think that has helped me better understand and value the intricacies of how much the various parts make up the whole.

*Some answers have been edited for length.

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tagsAileen FuchsAnthea HartigArena StageCarla HaydenChamber Dance ProjectDC Jazz FestivalDeborah RutterDiane Coburn BruningDR. DOROTHY KOSINSKIELIZABETH VON HASSELLGALA Hispanic Theatregay men’s chorus of washingtonHIRSHHORN MUSEUM & SCULPTURE GARDENJenny BilfieldJulie KentLibrary of CongressMelissa ChiuMolly SmithNational Building MuseumNational Museum of Women in the ArtsNational Portrait GalleryNATIONAL SPORTING MUSEUMRachel GoslinsREBECCA ENDE LICHTENBERGREBECCA READ MEDRANORhea CombsSmithsonian American Art MuseumSmithsonian Arts and Industries BuildingSmithsonian’s National Museum of American HistorySTEPHANIE STEBICHStudio TheatreSunny SumterSUSAN FISHER STERLINGThe Kennedy Centerthe Phillips CollectionThe Washington BalletTHEA CANOWashington Performing Arts

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