Johnnetta Cole says that she has to come back to Atlanta on occasion to check on how the part of her heart that she left here is doing. Currently director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, she returned to Atlanta for a reception marking the closing of the “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” exhibition held at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.
It was clear that Dr. Cole’s presence still resonates in Atlanta from the number of attendees who came to the reception with memories of her service as president of Spelman College (1987-97) and then as a distinguished professor of anthropology, women’s studies and African American studies at Emory until 2002 when she accepted the post of president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.
In addition there were representatives of the Carter Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology, including John Hartman, the former director of the Carter Center, and G. Wayne Clough, the former Georgia Tech president.
Not surprisingly, however, Dr Cole first referenced Bonnie Speed, the Carlos’ director. But it was a surprise when she announced that she and Ms. Speed were in fact twins who had been separated at birth.
How likely is that? Dr. Cole was born in Jacksonville, Fla., where her family had been leaders of the black community there. Ms. Speed was born in Skowhegan, Maine, and educated at Maine institutions until received her master’s in art history at the University of Kansas.
Although their exposure to the arts generally and their dedication as educators provided common ground for their collaboration, it was the “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” that bonded them — the exhibition that explored how celestial phenomena such as rainbows and eclipses as well as the sun, the moon and stars inspired African art.
The exhibition was curated by Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator Christine Mullen Kreamer and opened in Washington on June 20, 2012.
It later traveled to the Newark Museum in New Jersey, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before appearing at the Carlos from Jan. 31-June 21 this year as part of Emory’s creation stories project, a collaboration with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Georgia Humanities Council.
During a wide ranging interview with Global Atlanta on June 18 with Dr. Cole and Ms. Speed, the two directors discussed the challenges of putting on an exhibition and engaging visitors, the museum’s role as an educational and creative force, its ability to partner with other institutions and the ever soaring price of African art.
Museums have a vital role to play as educators, they agreed, especially for the young, and especially now that budgets for the arts have been cut in school systems around the country.
Ms. Speed said that the Carlos had responded to the decline in school visits by exploring their causes and identified a drop in transportation budgets as a significant cause.
“We found money for the buses, and that brought us right back up (in our attendance by school groups) with a waiting list,” she said.
Dr. Cole cited the National Museum of African Art’s partnerships with elementary schools in Washington. In an encounter with some 5th graders in the program, she asked what they learned.
“I learned Africa is not a country but a continent,” one of the elementary students remarked. Not only was Dr. Cole impressed by his answer, (“Many adults don’t know that,” she added.), but with his bearing and his confidence in his newly acquired knowledge.
While school systems increasingly are making choices between providing funds for the arts or programs in science, technology, engineering and math (disciplines known by the acronym, STEM), instead of decrying their development, the two directors came up with the acronym “STEAM,” which by putting the arts in the mix would create even more energy.
During both the interview and her remarks at the Carlos, a dominant theme of Dr. Cole’s was the importance of museum’s responsibility to provide platforms for “disruptive innovation.”
“What art does in cahoots with anthropology,” she added, “is to expose the other and ultimately to learn more about the self. When you have that perception of looking at another people’s art, language, culture, you start learning about what does that mean about yourself.”
As a prime example of what she means by “disruptive innovation,” she cited the seminal role Warren Robbins, a former cultural affairs officer of the U.S. State Department, played in the origin of the National Museum of Africa Art.
Mr. Robbins, who had collected works of African art while traveling in Europe, started exhibiting them in the basement of his Washington home. The collection eventually settled in a residence where the abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived from 1871-77 before an enlarged collection was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1978.
Mr. Robbins’ collection provides an example of “disruptive innovation,” she added, because it was an early foray into the realm of cross-cultural communication.
At the Carlos, she further defined “disruptive innovation” by quoting Harold Closter, the Smithsonian’s affiliations director, who said “the most disruptive form of innovation is collaboration,” a turn of phrase she used to praise the role of the Smithsonian in collaborating with Emory.
She then segued into her reflections about the murder of nine members of a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. the day before.
At the beginning of the reception, she had discussed the tragedy with Mr. Hartman, formerly of the Carter Center, and in her remarks spoke of the need for greater collaboration to resolve society’s divisions.
“It may seem like a stretch to you,” she told the attendees. “But the visual arts have an amazing ability to play a role in helping us do better.”
She then introduced Dr. Clough, the former president of Georgia Tech and secretary (the top job) of the Smithsonian from 2008-2014, and praised him for combating the “silo” mentality at the institution— another example of “disruptive innovation through collaboration,” she said.
Dr. Clough, who maintains an office at Georgia Tech, hired Dr. Cole as director of the National Museum of African Art in 2009.
He described how the Smithsonian with its vast array of resources around the world including 19 museums and nine research centers collaborated with the “African Cosmos: Stellar Arts” exhibition by including the capabilities of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s facility atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Having diagnosed satisfactorily the condition of the part of her heart remaining in Atlanta, Dr. Cole prepared to leave the following Monday for Haiti for, no doubt, another heart monitoring.
She and Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s undersecretary for history, art and culture, would be visiting the work of the institution’s work to recover and restore artworks damaged by the earthquake of January 2010.