THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY (NPG) in Washington, D.C., announced a new appointment today. Rhea L. Combs is joining the Smithsonian museum as director of curatorial affairs.

Leading the curatorial and conservation teams and working closely with the history and audience engagement departments, Combs will oversee NPG’s exhibitions, acquisitions, and collection. She will also be a part of the NPG’s executive team, a group of six that reports to the director and provides counsel regarding a range of museum-wide decisions.


Smithsonian Connection: Rhea L. Combs is joining the National Portrait Gallery from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. | Courtesy Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Photo by Abe Mohammadione / Ideas United


Combs comes from within the Smithsonian Institution. She has been serving as curator of film and photography at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and head of the museum’s Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts. She officially joins NPG on May 10.

“The National Portrait Gallery has a long-standing history of excellence and has been able to effectively navigate the line between history, art, and contemporary culture. I look forward to expanding this idea in broader and more daring ways,” Combs told Culture Type in an email statement.

“It’ll be important to explore a range of ideas and perspectives through the lens of portraiture and to pursue this so that it complicates and broadens our understanding of what the ‘American narrative’ fully means.”

Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery said she was delighted to welcome Combs. In a statement, Sajet added: “Her impressive career has focused on the potential of history, art and biography to spark meaningful conversations about contemporary culture while drawing on lessons of the past. I am especially excited to see how she will lead our talented curators to grow the collection and develop important and impactful exhibitions.”

“The National Portrait Gallery has a long-standing history of excellence and has been able to effectively navigate the line between history, art, and contemporary culture. I look forward to expanding this idea in broader and more daring ways.” — Rhea L. Combs

COMBS STARTED WORKING at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2013, playing an integral role in the museum’s planning and programming in advance of its grand opening in 2016. She co-curated the traveling exhibition “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” (2015) and “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection of NMAAHC” (2015-17). Both shows were presented in NMAAHC’s temporary exhibition space within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Coinciding with NMAAHC’s debut, Combs organized “Everyday Beauty: Photographs and Film from the Permanent Collection,” the museum’s inaugural photography exhibition. More recently, she worked on “Represent: Hip Hop Photography” (2018-19) and “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture” (2018-19). She also co-developed NMAAHC’s “Double Exposure” series of photography books.

Prior to joining the Smithsonian, Combs taught courses in visual culture, film, race and gender studies at Chicago State University, Lewis & Clark College, and Emory University. As an independent curator, she has organized film exhibitions for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, Black Public Media, Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago History Museum), and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Early in her career, she served as an assistant curator the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta.

Combs received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Howard University, a Master of Arts degree in African American studies from Cornell University and a Ph.D., from Emory University, where her interdisciplinary studies focused on African American cultural production, film history, and gender.

WHEN AMERICAN LEGENDS and prominent public figures represented in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery die, the museum puts their portraits on special display. Recently, portraits of Vernon Jordan, Cicely Tyson, Hank Aaron, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Lewis, David Driskell, Kobe Bryant, Toni Morrison, and Leah Chase, have hung in memoriam (and/or been featured on the museum’s website during temporary COVID closures).

Over the past several years, the museum’s exhibitions and programming have become increasingly relevant to contemporary culture. The museum brought nationwide attention to Amy Sherald when she won the museum’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016.The achievement positioned her to be among the artists the Obamas considered to paint their official portraits for the museum. Unveiled in 2018, Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of President Barack Obama and Sherald’s of First Lady Michelle Obama have drawn record visitors to NPG.

A major exhibition featuring two contemporary artists, “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar” (2018-19) examined the absence of African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native Americans in historical portraiture and weighed how their invisibility has influenced our understanding of U.S. history.

In 2018, the National Gallery of Art displayed a portrait of Henrietta Lacks (“Henrietta Lacks (HeLa): The Mother of Modern Medicine,” 2017) by Kadir Nelson, an important painting co-acquired from the artist with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Recent acquisitions also include an iconic portrait of Beyoncé by Tyler Mitchell, the first Black photographer, and among the youngest, to shoot the cover of American Vogue (September 2018), which was added to the museum’s collection in 2019.

AS NPG’S NEW DIRECTOR of curatorial affairs, Combs is succeeding Brandon Brame Fortune, who retired last spring as chief curator emerita, after more 33 years at the museum. The position has since been retitled, in deference to the Native American community, a museum spokesperson said. The rank, duties, and responsibility of the role remain the same.

Asked whether there are any works among the museum’s holdings to which she is particularly drawn, Combs said: “I’m looking forward to learning more about the collection, but the Toni Morrison portrait by Robert McCurdy is a longtime favorite. Ms. Morrison was bold, committed, and clear-eyed with her work and its purpose. I hope to bring that level of focus with me as I work closely with my colleagues.” CT


UPDATED (04/06/21)


All Smithsonian Institution museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, are currently closed due to COVID-19. The museum’s reopening date has yet to be announced.


FIND MORE about Rhea L. Combs on her website


Rhea L. Combs helped develop Double Exposure, a series of photography books published by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Combs wrote the introduction to “Through the African American Lens,” the first volume in the series, which accompanied an exhibition of the same name. “The Obama Portraits” provides in depth coverage of the making of President Barack Obama’s portrait by artist Kehinde Wiley, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s, which was painted by Amy Sherald. Both were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in 2018. The volume includes contributions by National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet and Richard J. Powell, among others. A children’s book, “Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment” documents the experience of the little girl who gazed up in awe at Michelle Obama’s portrait and became a national sensation when the image went viral.


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