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Founding Deputy Director Kinshasha Holman Conwill Has Retired From Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

 

A MUSEUM LEADER and institution builder, Kinshasha Holman Conwill dedicated her entire career to being a faithful steward of art, history, and culture, establishing the background and experience necessary to seize the opportunity of a lifetime. Few get the chance to help envision and develop a monument to the African American experience, from ideas and concepts on paper to a fully staffed, internationally recognized architectural gem on American’s National Mall with unparalleled collections.

Conwill had that opportunity over past 17 years as deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.

More than $320 million was raised from private donors to support the 665,000 square foot, LEED Gold-certified museum. After more than a dozen challenging and rewarding years, when it was finally time for the grand opening on Sept. 24, 2016, President Barack Obama, the first Black President of the United States, did the honors.

Thousands flowed into the museum that weekend. Months later, interest remained off the charts. Incredibly, more than 1 million people had visited by February 2017, according to the museum.

 


Kinshasha Holman Conwill. | Courtesy Smithsonian NMAAHC

 

About two years after NMAAHC debuted, Conwill had a brief interview in front of the museum with an outlet called Brown Passport. “The responsibility for being a steward of this wonderful museum is awesome,” she said. “It’s extraordinary and it’s a little overwhelming at times. But it’s such an honor that one gets over the awsomeness of it and it makes coming to work, it makes working with my colleagues, a real joy. But one also feels that one is representing past, present, and future generations.”

Earlier this week, NMAAHC announced Conwill’s retirement, which was effective Dec. 31, 2022.

“For nearly two decades she has been an unflinching advocate for this museum and all it stands for. Her leadership has been nothing short of stellar. She has guided us with creativity and courage, with wisdom and wit, with passion, style, and grace. We are honored to have had her walk with us, and for us,” NMAAHC Director Kevin Young said in a statement about her retirement.

A former deputy director (1980-88) and director (1988-99) of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Conwill started at the Smithsonian in 2005, more than a decade before NMAAHC opened its doors. Working alongside Lonnie Bunch III, the African American museum’s founding director who now leads the entire Smithsonian Institution, she helped envision the museum, its programming, fundraising, and collections as it was literally built from the ground up.

“For nearly two decades she has been an unflinching advocate for this museum and all it stands for. Her leadership has been nothing short of stellar.” — NMAAHC Director Kevin Young

On May 12, 2016, Conwill hosted a press preview with architects David Adjaye and Phil Freelon (1953-2019). It was a few months before the grand opening of the museum as the building interior neared completion and gallery installations were still in progress.

“We are so delighted you are all here. This is a great opportunity for this museum to share what we have been working on for over 10 years and our predecessors have been working on. The Grand Army of the Republic started 100 years ago looking for a way to memorialize the Black experience, the Black sacrifice, the Black achievement,” Conwill told reporters.

“You will see some marvelous architecture. …You’ll also see some major objects that were loaded into the museum even before we started construction. …You’ll also hear about what is to come and you’ll hear the stories that we are telling through our magnificent group of curatorial colleagues who are here today. They have crafted the execution and the realization of what Lonnie Bunche promised when he joined this museum, which is to look at the American experience through the African American experience.”

Over the years, Conwill was instrumental in expanding NMAAHC’s collections, developing exhibitions, forging key partnerships, and leading the publication of numerous museum books and catalogs.

 

Kinshasha Holman Conwill speaks to journalists May 2016
May 12, 2016: Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, speaks with journalists during a preview of the museum. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

 

A curator, lecturer, author, and authority on visual arts and cultural policy, early in her career, Conwill worked for several years at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Los Angeles and later became a senior policy advisor with the American Association of Museums. She was also an exhibit coordinator at the Museum of the American Indian in New York.

During her two-decades at the Studio Museum, a period of foundational growth and influence when the institution moved to 125th Street, Conwill organized more than 40 exhibitions. Writing about her tenure, in an essay for the Studio Museum titled “Ancient to the Future,” historian Kellie Jones said Conwill, “continued to place importance on solo shows by master African-American artists such as Emma Amos, William T. Williams, Norman Lewis, Archibald Motley, and Romare Bearden. With an exhibition of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Museum began to turn toward a legion of emerging artists.”

In 1990, Conwill oversaw a historic project when the Studio Museum presented one of the first exhibitions featuring contemporary African artists at the Venice Biennale.

Conwill graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and went on to earn a BFA from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

A former chair of The Institute of Museum and Library Studies, Conwill previously served on the boards of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Association of Art Museum Directors, and the Municipal Art Society of New York. In 2021, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums) also recognized Conwill as one of the 100 most influential museum professionals of the 20th century.

“As museum professionals in the 21st century, we are all beneficiaries of Kinshasha’s leadership and legacy. We are clearly in her debt. And so is a world that sorely needs the kind of light that only Kinshasha Holman Conwill can bring.” Young said.

Young’s statement described Conwill as the “soul of this museum.” She now holds the title of deputy director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. CT

 

FIND MORE about Kinshasha Holman Conwill from The History Makers and a UCLA oral history project

FIND MORE about Conwill’s two-decade tenure at the Studio Museum in Harlem

 

FIND MORE about Conwill’s late husband, sculptor Houston Conwill

FIND MORE about Conwill’s father M. Carl Holman, a pioneering civil rights leader and president of the National Urban Coalition, from a Library of Congress discussion with her brothers

 

BOOKSHELF
Kinshasha Holman Conwill has published many books in a variety of capacities, including “Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies” (co-author), “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: The Apollo Theater and American Entertainment” (co-editor), “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue” (contributor), and “Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures” (co-editor), which is forthcoming in March.

 

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