Staff Biographies

Johnnetta Betsch Cole

Director, National Museum of African Art

September 1, 2015

Johnnetta Betsch Cole was appointed the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in 2009. Founded as a small museum on Capitol Hill in 1964, the museum became a part of the Smithsonian in 1979, and in 1987, it moved to its current location on the National Mall. The museum’s collection of more than 10,000 objects represents nearly every area of the continent of Africa and contains a variety of media and art forms. Cole currently serves on the Scholarly Advisory Board of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in fall 2016.

Before assuming her current position, Cole had a long and distinguished career as an educator and humanitarian. Through her work as a college president, university professor, and through her published works, speeches and community service, she has addressed racial, gender and all other forms of inequality.

Cole served as president of Spelman College in Atlanta (1987–1997) and Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. (2002–2007). She is the only person to have served as president of these two historically black colleges for women in the United States. She is also Professor Emerita of Emory University from which she retired as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies.

In 1987, she became the first African American woman to serve as president of Spelman College. During her presidency, Spelman was named the number-one liberal arts college of the South. During her presidency at Bennett College for Women, an art gallery was opened and programs were initiated in women’s studies and global studies.

Cole has conducted research in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States, and she has written and edited several books and many scholarly articles. She is the president of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ board, a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and member of the board of trustees of Gregory University in Uturu, Nigeria. Cole is also a member of the Toni Morrison Society.

Cole has been awarded 68 honorary degrees and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the TransAfrica Forum Global Public Service Award, the Radcliffe Medal, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal and the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Community Service from United Way of America. In 2010, Ebony magazine listed her among the 100 most influential African Americans, and in 2011, Washingtonian magazine listed her among Washington, D.C.’s most powerful women. In February 2015, Cole was given a Black Entertainment Television Honors award for education.

On Dec. 8, 2012, in Uturu, Nigeria, an Igbo Chieftaincy title of ADAOHA (Daughter of All) was conferred on Cole by His Royal Highness as Eze Cyril Ibe, EzeOgbonnaya Uwadiegwu and Eze Chimezie.

After one year in an early entrance program at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and completing her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, Cole earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology from Northwestern University in Illinois with a focus on African studies. 



Dr. Johnnetta Cole

Dr. Johnnetta Cole

Photo: Jessica Suworoff

Dr. Johnnetta Cole, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.