Women Leaders: Stephanie Stebich of Smithsonian American Art Museum
By May 9, 2022 0 737•
STEPHANIE STEBICH, THE MARGARET AND TERRY STENT DIRECTOR OF THE SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM
Our spring arts preview featured 20 women cultural leaders in Washington, D.C. We wanted to amplify their voices in our online newsletters, spotlighting each of them individually. Our Monday May 9 newsletter features Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of The Smithsonian American Art Museum.
THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?
STEPHANIE STEBICH: I am counting the days until the Renwick Gallery’s 50th anniversary exhibition opens May 13th. It is a chance to share what we have been collecting: the best of American makers, who are helping define our time and inspire our future — just as the title promises: “This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World.”
GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way?
SS: I was fortunate to be invited to come work at the Smithsonian—an offer I embraced given the reach, relevance and impact of our national museums. I mark my fifth year at SAAM this April, and in those years have experienced whipsaw moments from record attendance and phenomenal support to a government closure and the pandemic emergency status we are now emerging from with renewed energy about the museum’s mission. Remarkably our dedicated staff met the moments we have faced with resilience and grace to keeping the digital doors open, even when we were closed temporarily. We’ve learned a lot about our audiences and our abilities for delivering on our commitment to exploring American art with global connections, particularly in a time of renewed questions about our shared American identity.
GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?
SS: Balancing how to be a national museum that’s welcoming and representative of all, while maintaining our strong connections with our local audiences. Notably, our last audience survey confirmed that 51 percent of our visitors are repeat visitors!
GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women to lead an arts institution?
SS: I follow in the steps of my predecessor Betsy Broun who was one of the longest serving directors at the Smithsonian, and for a time, the only female director at the institution. Now there are more woman directors leading D.C. area cultural institutions than ever before!
GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?
SS: It is difficult to pick just one thing. So I will highlight a recent project where we made our collections and American stories more relevant and engaging. We recently published a series of wonderful digital comics called “Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists” which are short takes on artists’ lives each drawn by a student-illustrator through a partnership with the Ringling College of Art and Design. I also prioritize educating the next generation of scholars in the field of American art and culture, and champion our virtual educational programs such as our real-time video conferences for K-12 classes around the world. That’s how we bring American art to American kids abroad.