THE SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM (SAAM) announced the appointment of Dalila Scruggs to a newly created role on its curatorial team. Scruggs is joining the Washington, D.C., museum as the inaugural Augusta Savage Curator of African American Art. Currently, she is curator for photography and prints at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. At SAAM, Scruggs will focus on exhibitions and acquisitions of African American art, one of the strengths of the museum’s collection. She officially starts on April 22.

“SAAM is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world, and I am so pleased that Dr. Scruggs will bring fresh, thoughtful analysis to these works that evoke themes both universal and specific to the African American and the American experience,” SAAM Director Stephanie Stebich said in a statement.


Dalila Scruggs. | Photo by Jeffrey Mercado


Scruggs brings more than 15 years of experience as a curator and museum educator to her new role. Since 2021, has been serving as curator for photography and prints at the Schomburg Center, where her projects have explored the work of Elizabeth Catlett and key figures such as Malcolm X. Her first major book, “Elizabeth Catlett: A Black Revolutionary Artist and All That It Implies” (University of Chicago Press), is forthcoming in September.

She has also been working with the Brooklyn Museum as a guest curator since 2020, complementing her previous staff roles at the Brooklyn Museum, where she was a senior museum instructor and fellowship coordinator (2017-21) and assistant curator of American art (2012-14). In 2017, Scruggs served as guest curator of “Freedom? Selections from the Paul R. Jones Collection,” working in collaboration with the University of Alabama’s Black Faculty and Staff Association on the exhibition, which was presented at the Paul R. Jones Gallery in downtown Tuscaloosa. Earlier in her career, she was a Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts at Williams College and a curatorial intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Scruggs has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Cornell University and earned a Ph.D., from Harvard University (2010), where she concentrated on African American art. Titled “’The Love of Liberty Has Brought Us Here’: The American Colonization Society and the Imaging of African-American Settlers in Liberia, West Africa,” her doctoral dissertation sheds light on the photographic practice of daguerreotypist August Washington. Scruggs’ new appointment marks a return to the Smithsonian, she was a Terra Foundation for American Art Predoctoral Fellow at SAAM, from 2007-08.

As curator of African American art at SAAM, Scruggs will study the museum’s existing holdings of African American art, develop a collection strategy, shape exhibitions, and also contribute to public programming and publications. Her portfolio is designed to prioritize the work and its distinctions and at the same time make certain that African American art is understood in the context of the American art narrative and incorporated into the museum’s larger exhibition programming and collection decisions. In addition, Scruggs will participate in “American Voices and Visions,” an inter-departmental project focused on a comprehensive, multi-year reinstallation of SAAM’s permanent collection.

“SAAM is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world, and I am so pleased that Dr. Scruggs will bring fresh, thoughtful analysis to these works that evoke themes both universal and specific to the African American and the American experience.”
— SAAM Director Stephanie Stebich


THE ORIGINS OF SAAM date back to 1829, before the institution came under auspices of the Smithsonian in 1846. More than a century later, in the mid-1960s, SAAM began acquiring works by African American artists. Early acquisitions included works by Sargent Johnson, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, and James Hampton. In 1967, more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson found their way to the museum through a gift from the Harmon Foundation. Works by Sam Gilliam began entering the collection in the 1970s. In 1980, SAAM added works by Joshua Johnson, Edmonia Lewis, Edward Mitchell Bannister, Robert S. Duncanson, and Henry Ossawa Tanner. A small bust by Augusta Savage was acquired in 1988. The 1990s brought works by Lois Mailou Jones, Norman Lewis, Whitfield Lovell, Gordon Parks, James A. Porter, and James Van Der Zee.

Over the years, SAAM has built a collection of more than 48,000 art objects, including more than 2,000 works by more than 200 African American artists, according to the museum’s website. Although African American art represents less than five percent, the category is one of the strengths of the collection, which includes the largest institutional holdings of Alma Thomas, William H. Johnson, and daguerreotypes by early photographers James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington. Significant works by Bill Traylor are also among the highlights. Works by contemporary artists Dawoud Bey, Sanford Biggers, Bisa Butler, Sonya Clark, Arthur Jafa, Winfred Rembert, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems are among the museum’s recent acquisitions.

Scruggs is the first person to step into the role of Augusta Savage Curator of African American Art at SAAM. The position was established with a $5 million gift to the museum’s endowment from anonymous donors. At the request of the donors, the position is named for Augusta Savage (1892-1962), in an effort to honor and bring attention to the artist’s legacy.

Savage was a sculptor and educator whose students included Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence. She was also an institution builder who founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem (1931); helped establish the Works Progress Administration-funded Harlem Community Art Center, where she served as founding director (1934); and co-founded the Harlem Artists Guild (1935). “Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp),” her most well-known work, was commissioned by the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. CT


WATCH MORE Last year, Dalila Scruggs gave a lecture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts about Elizabeth Catlett’s print “I Have Given the World My Songs” (1947/1989), which is part of the artist’s Negro Woman series. Catlett’s work was featured in the VMFA’s exhibition “Storied Strings: The Guitar in American Art.” | Video by VMFA

FIND MORE The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s comic book series Drawn to Art: Tales of Inspiring Women Artists features a publication about Augusta Savage


Multiple exhibitions focused on Black artists are currently on view at SAAM in Washington, D.C.: “Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” (Sept. 15, 2023–June 2, 2024); “Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour — Frederick Douglass” (Dec. 8, 2023-Dec. 6, 2026); “Carrie Mae Weems: Looking Forward, Looking Back” (Sept. 22, 2023-July 7, 2024); and “J. P. Ball and Robert S. Duncanson: An African American Artistic Collaboration” (Sept. 15, 2023–March 24, 2024)


Dalila Scruggs is the author of the forthcoming book “Elizabeth Catlett: A Black Revolutionary Artist and All That It Implies,” which is expected to be published in September. The exhibition catalog “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor” (2018) documents the landmark retrospective of Bill Traylor organized by Leslie Umberger at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Isaac Julien: Lessons of the Hour – Frederick Douglass” accompanies British artist Isaac Julien’s stirring work—a 10-screen film installation and related photography. “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful” was published to coincide with a comprehensive retrospective of Alma Thomas, exploring her paintings (including several from SAAM’s collection) and works on paper, as well as other aspects of her creative life.


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