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Sharon F. Patton, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art since 2003, announced her resignation today, effective in December.
“I have accomplished much of what I set out to do at the museum and now, with a new Secretary and new leadership, it seems to be the right time to leave,” said Patton. “I will pursue other career opportunities, but I plan to stay active in the field of African art, which has been my lifetime interest and passion.”
Patton, 64, oversees the museum’s holdings of more than 9,000 African art objects. Under her leadership, the museum acquired the notable Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection of more than 500 objects representing nearly every area of the continent of Africa. The collection was donated in 2005 and its inaugural exhibition opened in 2007.
Patton established new programs, such as “Treasures”—exhibitions featuring exemplary pieces loaned by African Art collectors—and those designed for young audiences, including “Playful Performers,” “BIG/small” and the upcoming “Thinking with Animals.” She also encouraged the acquisition and exhibition of contemporary African Art, including “El Anatsui: Gawu,” the exhibition on major international artist El Anatsui who turns discarded metal into remarkable works of art. The museum’s first traveling exhibition, “Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art,” opened at the museum in May 2007 and traveled to the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles. Patton also established a visiting artist program to encourage participation between artists and students.
“In her five years at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, Sharon brought both scholarship and a special graciousness to her work and she has pointed the way toward the museum’s future,” said Richard Kurin, Acting Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture.
Prior to joining the Smithsonian, Patton served as the John G. W. Cowles Director of Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum in Ohio. She also began her tenure at Oberlin as professor of art in October 1998. Before joining the faculty at Oberlin, she was associate professor of art history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1991-1998) and director of its Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (1996-1998). She served as chief curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem from 1988 to 1991.
Patton is the author of two books—“Memory and Metaphor, the Art of Romare Bearden” (Oxford University Press, 1991) and “African-American Art” (Oxford University Press, 1998).
A native of Chicago, Patton received her doctorate degree in art history from Northwestern University in 1980. She earned her master’s degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana (1969) and a bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago (1966).
A search committee will be appointed in the coming weeks to begin a national search for a new director.
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