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Johnnetta B. Cole, Director of African Art Museum, to Retire in March

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art director Johnnetta B. Cole will step down from her post in March 2017, Peggy McGlone of the Washington Post reports. Cole led the institution for eight years.

“Johnnetta is known across the Smithsonian for her spirit of collaboration, collegiality and passion for the arts,” secretary David J. Skorton wrote in a staff memo announcing her retirement. “Throughout her tenure, she has worked with her colleagues to raise the profile of the African Art Museum as the nation’s premier museum focusing on the visual arts of Africa.”

Cole recently weathered backlash for presenting an exhibition of works from the private collection of the Cosby family. The opening of “Conversations” (2014) coincided with the revelation of the sexual harassment and rape allegations involving Bill Cosby. Cole maintains that she did not know about the accusations when the museum was organizing the show. She defended her decision to keep the exhibition open despite the controversy, saying, “It is my responsibility as the museum’s director to defend the rights of the artists in ‘Conversations’ to have their works seen. It is also my responsibility to defend the rights of the public to see these works of art, which have the power to inspire through the compelling stories they tell of the struggles and the triumphs of African American people.”

Prior to working at the Smithsonian, Cole served as president of Bennett College in North Carolina, Spelman College in Georgia, and the Association of Art Museum Directors. She taught as a college professor for many years, authored a number of books, and earned her Ph.D. in anthropology.