Smithsonian Secretary-elect Lonnie G. Bunch III

 

THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION’S Board of Regents launched a search for a new leader in December and found the ideal candidate was already in its midst. This morning, the Smithsonian announced the election of Lonnie G. Bunch III, who will serve as the 14th Secretary. Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). As head of the entire institution, he will oversee 19 museums, including NMAAHC. His appointment is effective June 16.

Bunch is the first African American to lead the Smithsonian, the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world. With more than 40 years of experience in the museum field, he is currently steering NMAAHC, the landmark museum that opened Sept. 24, 2016, in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian describes the museum as “the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history.”

The Smithsonian board praised Bunch’s leadership, experience, and exceptional accomplishments over the course of his career and with the African American museum.

“Lonnie is a deeply respected scholar, educator and leader,” board chair David Rubenstein said in a statement. Co-founder of the Carlyle Group, Rubenstein co-led the 11-member search committee with board vice chair Steve Case.

Rubensein continued: “In looking for someone who would shepherd the Institution into the future, we wanted to find a special person with equal parts talent and passion. Fortunately, the ideal choice for our next Secretary was already an integral part of the Smithsonian family.”

Case, who founded AOL, further bolstered the wisdom of the choice. “After working at the Smithsonian in various capacities over three decades, and then birthing a wildly successful startup within the Smithsonian, Lonnie has the benefit of knowing the Smithsonian intimately,” Case said in a statement.

“Now Lonnie will bring his insights and passion to reimagining the Smithsonian of the future, and creating a culture of agility and innovation to expand the Institution’s impact. The Regents stand ready to support Lonnie’s vision for driving cross-institutional collaboration to create a virtual Smithsonian that can reach everybody, everywhere.”

“Lonnie will bring his insights and passion to reimagining the Smithsonian of the future, and creating a culture of agility and innovation to expand the Institution’s impact. The Regents stand ready to support Lonnie’s vision for driving cross-institutional collaboration to create a virtual Smithsonian that can reach everybody, everywhere.” — Steve Case


On May 28, 2019, current Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton congratulates Secretary-elect Lonnie G. Bunch III. Bunch officially begins his new role June 16. | Photo by Jaclyn Nash, Courtesy Smithsonian Institution

 

THE APPOINTMENT OF BUNCH as secretary is unprecedented on multiple fronts. Academics and business leaders have traditionally led the Smithsonian, an institution focused on art, history, culture, and science. David Skorton, a cardiologist and university administrator, held the post for three years and six months ago announced he was stepping down to serve as president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Prior to Skorton, secretaries included G. Wayne Clough (2008-14), who had served as president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Lawrence M. Small (2000-07) who was previously president of Fannie Mae.

By contrast, Bunch is the first historian to serve as secretary and the first museum director to be elevated to the position in 74 years.

Bunch is the first historian to serve as secretary and the first museum director to be elevated to the position in 74 years.

Bunch has held positions at three Smithsonian museums, the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and NMAAHC, where he was hired in 2005 to build the museum, based on a century-long idea that finally won public support. He had Congressional approval for the project, but only “one staff member, no collections, no funding, and no site for a museum,” according to the Smithsonian.

Despite the formidable challenge, Bunch made it happen. More than a decade later, the nationally televised, NMAAHC dedication ceremony was attended by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush, former First Lady Laura Bush, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who co-sponsored the legislation that made the African American museum possible. Oprah Winfrey and Robert DeNiro paid tribute to historic figures and Stevie Wonder performed.

The 400,000 square-foot museum was designed by architect David Adjaye. Sitting adjacent to the Washington Monument, NMAAHC is the first “green building” on the National Mall. According to the museum, more than 5.5 million visitors have been welcomed, its collection has grown to 40,000 objects, and $453 million has been raised privately.

Exploring the experiences of black people in the United States through the lens of history, culture, and art, works by African American artists, including Robert S. Duncanson, Jefferson Pinder, Betye Saar, Alma Thomas, William T. William, and Kara Walker, are showcased in a special gallery in the museum called “Visual Art and the American Experience.”

 

 

EARLY ON, BUNCH STAKED HIS CAREER on history, from his academic background to the focus of his work. He has also made his own mark on museum history along the way, as his latest pioneering appointment demonstrates.

Born and raised in Newark, N.J., Bunch earned bachelor’s (1974) and master’s (1976) degrees in African American and American history from American University in Washington, D.C.

He landed his first position with the Smithsonian more than 40 years ago, when he served as an education specialist and historian at the National Air and Space Museum (1978-79). In Los Angeles, he was curator of history and program manager at the California African American Museum (1983-89).

Then Bunch returned to the Smithsonian and spent 11 years at the National Museum of American History. He was supervising curator (1989-1992), assistant director for curatorial affairs (1992–94), and associate director for curatorial affairs (1994-2000).

Over the course of his career, Bunch has also authored books, held university teaching positions, and produced documentaries for public television. He was serving as president of the Chicago Historical Society (2001-05) when he was tapped to lead the Smithsonian’s then-forthcoming African American museum.

THE SMITHSONIAN WAS FOUNDED in 1846. For fiscal year 2019, the institution received $1 billion from Congress. The federal government provides about 62 percent of the institution’s budget with the balance raised from private donations (corporations, foundations, individuals), plus revenues from Smithsonian Enterprises (shops, restaurants, magazines, etc).

For fiscal year 2020, the Smithsonian’s budget request to Congress rose to $1.6 billion. Funds for infrastructure improvements account for $219 million of the increase.

Admission to all of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall is free, and they are open every day of the year except Christmas. When the institution was forced to close during the 35-day government shutdown from December 2018-January 2019, Skorton published an opinion article in USA Today stating, “In addition to the effects on the many federal agencies that have been reported in the news media, great cultural institutions are also sustaining direct and indirect harm.”

 


Secretary-elect Lonnie G. Bunch stands at the East Door of the Smithsonian Castle, Washington, D.C. (May 28, 2019). | Photo by Jaclyn Nash, Courtesy Smithsonian Institution

 

AS SECRETARY OF THE SMITHSONIAN, Bunch’s portfolio is expansive—19 museums, 21 libraries, nine research centers, and the National Zoo. His oversight includes the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and the Archives of American Art in Washington, which has a three-year project underway focused on conducting oral history interviews with African American artists and collecting their papers.

Similar to NMAAHC, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Anacostia Community Museum (which focuses on the history of local Washington and named a new director, Melanie A. Adams, last week) also explore the experiences and contributions of people of color.

In addition, several Smithsonian museums are dedicated to art, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, and National Museum of African Art. The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, both focus on Asian art.

SAAM’s collection of African American art is one of the most significant in the world. The museum owns more than 2,000 works by about 200 artists, including more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson. Since the official portraits of the Obamas, by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, were unveiled at the Portrait Gallery in February 2018, visitor numbers have more than doubled. (The building that houses the Portrait Gallery and SAAM welcomed 2.3 million visitors in 2018, an increase of about one million over 2017.)

At the Hirshhorn, the schedule for “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” has been extended. The Los Angeles artist’s eight-part, 360-degree installation, is now on view through 2021.

BUNCH HAS BEEN TAPPED to lead a vast institution with deep holdings and intellectual resources whose museums welcome about 29 million visitors annually from around the world.

“I am humbled and honored to become the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” Bunch said in a statement. “I am excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future.”

“I am excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future.” — Lonnie Bunch

The historic appointment of Bunch leaves a vacancy at the top of the Smithsonian’s African American museum. Kinshasha Holman Conwill, currently serves as deputy director of NMAAHC. She previously spent nearly two decades at the Studio Museum in Harlem, serving as deputy director (1980–88) before being promoted to director (1988–99).

“This is a great moment for America,” Conwill told Smithsonian magazine. “It’s really the validation of the concept of what it means to achieve in this country. But the main thing is that this is one of the most distinguished historians on the planet. It’s a great moment for the humanities because for someone steeped in history to run this Institution, it’s so exciting. It’s hard for me to put in words. There’s no one on earth I admire more.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Lonnie Bunch at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. | via NMAAHC

 

FIND MORE about Smithsonian fellowships for artists, curators, and scholars

FIND MORE Lonnie Bunch talked to WBEZ-Chicago public radio about creating space and preserving African American history and memory

 


A look at how the National Museum of African American History and Culture explores “a people’s journey and a nation’s story.” | Video by Smithsonian NMAAHC

 


A native of Newark, N.J., Lonnie Bunch received an award for Visionary Leadership in Museums from the Newark Museum and talked about power of museums and their influence on communities. | Video by State of the Arts/PBS

 

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