April 24, 2017

American Alliance of Museums Honors Dr. Johnnetta Cole with 2017 Award for Distinguished Service to Museums

Arlington, VA–The American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the only organization representing the entire scope of the museum community, announced today that Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole is the recipient of the 2017 AAM Distinguished Service to Museums Award.  The award recognizes Cole’s decades of dedicated work and support to the museum community, as well as her accomplishments as a scholar, educator, humanitarian, and national and global leader in a career spanning more than 50 years.

“I’m delighted that the Alliance is recognizing Johnnetta’s decades of service and leadership,” said AAM President and CEO Laura Lott. “The AAM Award for Distinguished Service to Museums recognizes sustained excellence and extraordinary service. Johnnetta’s contributions to our field, and to our country, have inspired me and so many others in our field to always aim higher and challenge the status quo.”

 Dr. Johnnetta Cole
Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole
Cole will accept the award during the general session of the Alliance’s Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in St. Louis on May 8.

“Dr. Cole is one of the most influential and respected women in the US,” said Dr. David J. Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, “and has broken ground in so many fields that calling her a pioneer is an understatement.”

“Johnnetta has taught me much about serving as a museum director, and has often shared treasured words of wisdom during good and bad times,” said Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Cole served as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art from 2009 to March 2017, where she focused the museum on a new era of collaborative work with African institutions, groundbreaking exhibitions, and extensive education programs. She established the first chief diversity officer position at a Smithsonian museum, and used that as a springboard for the field. She continues to work with the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to encourage greater diversity and inclusive practices in American art museums.

“Every speech Johnnetta Betsch Cole has given to audiences at the National Museum of African Art has begun with the greeting, ‘Welcome home!’ It is a powerful way to not only physically welcome visitors and supporters into the museum, but to do so conceptually by reminding everyone that we all share a common origin, a common humanity rooted in Africa,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Acting Provost and Under Secretary for Museums & Research. “It is a statement as simple as it is true, and in today’s world, beset by what seems like a crescendo of bigotry and intolerance, Johnnetta’s greeting, welcoming thousands into her museum for a moment of encounter, learning and reflection is comforting, reassuring, and even inspiring. She provides a model for all of us in the museum world.”

Before her years at the Smithsonian, Cole served as the first African American woman president of Spelman College, leading the college to be named by U.S. News & World Report as the #1 liberal arts college in the South, the first time an historically Black college or university received a #1 rating. Cole also served as president of Bennett College, and as a faculty member at several colleges and universities where she taught courses in Anthropology; African, Latin American, and Caribbean studies; African American studies; and Women’s studies.

Cole’s commitment to the museum field goes back to her early years as an anthropologist, civil and women’s rights activist, and collector of art and oral history.  Since the 1980s, she has advised the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and others on exhibitions and public programs.  She also has served as President of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and delivered an inspirational keynote address at AAM’s 2015 Annual Meeting in Atlanta, where she emphasized the strong linkage between diversity and the social value of museums.

Cole has served on numerous corporate and nonprofit boards. From 1998-1999, she served on President Bill Clinton’s Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History, and from 2006-2008 on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s Committee on Transformational Diplomacy.

About the American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums has been bringing museums together since 1906, helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community. Representing more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field, the Alliance stands for the broad scope of the museum community. For more information, visit


Media Contact:

Joseph Klem
Director, Public Relations
American Alliance of Museums