Curating History

As chief curator for the Smithsonian’s newest museum, Jacquelyn Days Serwer ’67 is charged with compiling a collection of art documenting 200 years of African American visual expression.

Jacquelyn Days Serwer ’67, a Bessie Schönberg donnee, now choreographs collections and exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On a clear summer day, on the sixth floor of an unremarkable beige office building in southwest Washington, DC, out of view of the 20-million-plus visitors who make their way to Smithsonian museums each year, the staff of the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) put the final touches on a project first conceived a century ago.

The media have given much attention to the architects who designed the building—an inverted terraced pyramid with an ornate bronze overlay, or corona, in marked contrast to the classical marble look of most Smithsonian museums—and to the unflagging efforts of the founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Jacquelyn Days Serwer ’67, the museum’s chief curator, has quietly gone about the daunting task of creating, from scratch, a permanent art collection documenting 200 years of black visual expression across mediums and movements.

“Normally if you do a history museum, a serious art collection isn’t necessarily part of it. Art is used as artifact,” Serwer says. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, however, art will be represented as an independent component in designated galleries as well as woven into historical exhibitions.

Down the hall from her office, a scale model of the Culture Floor allows Serwer and her team to visualize how the works will converse with one another. They’ve printed tiny versions of each work of art to plan the final arrangement. A miniature Alma Thomas painting, with its trademark concentric rings of primary hues, is immediately recognizable, despite being only a few centimeters in size.

“Doing this gallery is kind of my dream exhibition,” Serwer says. “We want to present art by African American artists and make the point that these artists belong in the American canon,” she says. “We’re hoping to lift the awareness of all our visitors, but especially those who go to art museums yet are relatively unfamiliar with art by black artists across American art history.”

To accomplish this, Serwer and her team have eschewed traditional ways of categorizing art by time period, medium, or subject matter. “We mix eras, styles, generations, and we’ve come up with new groupings,” she says. “We want to force people not to make visual assumptions but to look at the work with fresh eyes.” An exhibition titled New Materials, New Worlds, for example, juxtaposes work by Chakaia Booker, best known for repurposing car tires into fantastical sculptural forms, with Thornton Dial, a self-taught Southern assemblage artist and painter.

“We want to present art by African American artists and make the point that these artists belong in the American canon.”

A wall-size bookshelf stuffed with tomes on Civil War history and black artists from every decade, catalogued and numbered neatly, takes up most of her modest office. Its lower shelves heave with sheaths of papers dotted with bright pink sticky notes—research for upcoming exhibitions. In the opposite corner, she has fashioned a small gallery of prints from her personal collection: Whitfield Lovell’s portrait of a young woman floating above a collage of real playing cards and a fanciful red dress by Washington favorite Renee Stout, among others. Serwer need only glance up from her monitor for a reminder of the true purpose of her work—the diverse beauty of African American art.

Despite her impressive title, her day-to-day duties are rather unglamorous. “Going to storage facilities, visiting potential donors, going to auctions,” she says. “It’s a different kind of engagement than someone who sees art by walking into museums.”

Serwer’s vision became reality when the museum opened in September.At Sarah Lawrence, it only took one art history course with Bill Rubin to move Serwer to think this was a field to which she could devote her life. “For me, it had everything,” she explains. “I had always loved history. I’m a very visual person. It meant you were spending your time with beautiful things, but also had the opportunity to find out all sorts of stories and facts. Art history seemed to bring it all together for me.”

She also studied with Barbara Rose (art history) and Rudolf Arnheim (psychology), major figures in the world of art criticism and theory. Rose helped Serwer secure her first job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as other professional opportunities.

“One of the first artist studios I visited was Sam Gilliam’s,” recalls Serwer, who was in grad school at the time. “I was in my twenties. I was terrified. And also thrilled to be there. Barbara Rose told Sam and Mel Edwards and William T. Williams they should work with me. I was very intimidated, but all three of them turned out to be very nice and very tolerant of me.”

The museum has commissioned Gilliam to create new works that will anchor the central hall. Serwer and her colleague Tuliza Fleming stopped by Gilliam’s studio to get a sense of the work’s direction and scale. Departing from his signature draped canvases, these new works are glossy, intensely colored monochromes with elements rising in relief. Serwer had not visited Gilliam’s studio in 40 years.

“It’s the same thrill. You walk in and see incredible things and have the opportunity to talk to the creator,” she says. “When we went this last time it was sort of momentous for me, bookending two stages of my career, which is really exciting.”