John Davis oversees the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, numerous research units, the National Zoo, multiple offices and programs related to education, the Office of Fellowships and Internships, the Smithsonian Scholarly Press, the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Smithsonian Libraries. Davis joined the Smithsonian in July 2017, and he is the first person to hold this position created by Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton to lead and promote multidisciplinary activities across the Smithsonian.
Previously, Davis was the Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art at Smith College and executive director of the Terra Foundation for American Art’s Global Academic Programs and Terra Foundation Europe.
Davis has been a faculty member in art and American studies at Smith College, a liberal arts college for women located in Northampton, Mass., for 25 years. He served as Smith’s associate provost and dean for academic development from 2007 to 2012. In this capacity, Davis managed the academic budget of the college, directed the office of sponsored research, chaired the committees on faculty compensation and development and on study abroad, and oversaw the science center, botanic gardens, campus school, athletics and educational-outreach programs. He has also chaired Smith’s faculty council.
In July 2015, Davis, an art historian, took leave from his position at Smith College to serve as executive director of the Terra Foundation’s Paris Center & Library. The center offers programs on current topics in American art and visual culture and serves as the coordinating office for the foundation’s global academic program in Europe and Asia.
The Terra Foundation for American Art was established in 1978. It is one of the leading foundations focused on the art of the U. S. and supports exhibitions, academic programs and research in the U.S. and around the world. The foundation, which gives grants totaling $10 million annually, is a major supporter of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
Davis is a well-known expert in the field of American art history. He earned his doctorate (1991) and two master’s degrees (1985 and 1986) from Columbia University. He received his bachelor’s in art history, graduating magna cum laude from Cornell University in 1983. His museum experience includes research positions at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, the National Academy of Design and the National Gallery of Art. Davis taught at Columbia and Princeton Universities before joining the Smith faculty in 1992. At Smith, he has served on the advisory committee of the Museums Concentration and directed the college’s Smithsonian Internship Program.
Davis’ contributions to the history of American art are extensive: He has authored or co-authored six books and museum catalogs and contributed dozens of essays to other publications. His article, “Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South and Urban Slavery in Washington, D.C.,” was named by the College Art Association as one of the 32 most important essays published in the first hundred years of the Art Bulletin, the leading art-history journal in the world, and his field-defining article, “The End of the American Century,” appeared in that journal in 2003. Davis is a frequent contributor to two Smithsonian publications, American Art and the Archives of American Art Journal.
Two of his publications, The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture and American Art to 1900: A Documentary History, co-authored with Sarah Burns, were named Outstanding Academic Book by CHOICE in 1996 and 2009, respectively. His most recent volume is the co-edited Blackwell Companion to American Art (2015), and he is currently writing a book with Michael Leja, to be translated into five languages, that will introduce the history of American art to international audiences.
Davis has served as a visiting professor in France, Belgium and Japan, and his research on 19th-century art and architecture has been supported by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Giles Whiting Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and Fulbright Association.
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