STEPHANIE STEBICH, MARGARET AND TERRY SENT DIRECTOR OF THE SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART
Our Spring Art Review featured 20 women cultural leaders in Washington, DC We wanted to amplify their voice in our online newsletters, highlighting each one individually. Our newsletter from Monday, May 9 features Stephanie Stebich, Margaret and Terry Stent, director of The Smithsonian American Art Museum.
GEORGETOWNER: DC should have a kind of “spring awakening” after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?
STEPHANIE STEBICH: I count the days until the opening of the exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery on May 13th. It’s an opportunity to share what we’ve collected: the best of American producers, helping to define our time and inspire our future – just as the title promises: “This present moment: creating a better world.”
GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us something about your career and inspirations along the way?
SS: I was lucky enough to be invited to come and work at the Smithsonian – an offer I accepted given the reach, relevance and impact of our national museums. This April marks my fifth year at SAAM and in those years I experienced strange moments from record attendance and phenomenal support to government closure and pandemic emergency status from which we now emerge with renewed energy regarding the museum’s mission. Amazingly, our dedicated staff fulfilled the moments we faced with the resilience and grace to keep the digital door open, even when we were temporarily closed. We learned a lot about our audience and our ability to fulfill our commitment to exploring American art with global connections, especially at a time of new questions about our shared American identity.
GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?
SS: Balance how to be a national museum that is welcome and representative of all, while maintaining strong connections with our local audience. It is important to note that our latest audience survey confirmed that 51% of our visitors are repeat visitors!
GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel among the first women to run an art institution?
SS: I follow in the footsteps 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. There are now more female principals running cultural institutions in DC than ever before!
GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of that you achieved while in your position?
SS: It’s hard to pick just one thing. Therefore, I will highlight a recent project in which we made our collections and American stories more relevant and interesting. We recently published a series of beautiful digital comics called “Attracted by Art: Ten Stories of Inspirational Artists” which are short depictions of the lives of artists each drawn by a student illustrator through a partnership with Ringling College of Art and Design. I also give priority to educating the next generation of scientists in the field of American art and culture, and support our virtual educational programs such as our real-time video conferencing for K-12 classes around the world. This is how we bring American art to American children abroad.