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Preserving Africa's Treasures
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Giving Voice

Preserving Africa's Treasures

Sharon F. Patton (G80) presides over the largest publicly held African art collection in the United States at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

Don't bother asking Sharon F. Patton (G80) what her favorite piece of art is. "That's like asking a parent, 'Who's your favorite child?'" she says.

Luckily, Patton doesn't have to pick. As director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, she is surrounded by approximately 8,000 pieces dating from 400 B.C. to the present. It's the largest collection of publicly held African art in the United States and includes traditional textiles, sculpture and pottery, but also contemporary works created from Plexiglas, rubber and sand. The NMAA also has the only conservation lab in the United States devoted solely to preserving African art.

The museum, which started in a Capitol Hill home owned by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, is now located mostly underground on the south side of the National Mall in Washington , D.C. ("Sometimes I feel like a mole," says Patton.) The NMAA is currently celebrating its 25th year as a part of the Smithsonian Institute with "Treasures." The exhibition includes 73 traditional masks and wood, ivory and bronze sculptures, many of which have never been displayed publicly in the United States.

"Treasures" and other upcoming anniversary exhibits of jewelry and textiles fulfill the museum's mission — preserving and showcasing African culture.

"My hope is for this museum to continue to be the premier institution for African art in the United States ," says Patton. "I want it to be consistent — what artists are doing in Africa is as important as what artists are doing in Western Europe or China."

Art became an interest at an early age for Patton, who grew up on Chicago's South Side. It was former art history professor Frank Willett's book African Art that eventually drew her to Northwestern.

"That's when I knew that you could use art as a way of talking about society and culture and history and people's lives," says Patton. When she realized Willett was teaching at Northwestern, Patton applied to the University's Program of African Studies. She earned her doctorate in art history with a focus on African art.

"The program was really inspirational for me," says Patton. "It is the foundation for anyone studying Africa ."

After living in Ghana in 1975-76, Patton returned to the United States, taught at several universities and then served as chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem . She returned to academia to establish a doctoral program in African and African American art at the University of Michigan and direct the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. While at Michigan she wrote the discipline-defining textbook African-American Art ( Oxford , 1998), which received CHOICE's Outstanding Academic Book of the Year Award.

Now in her third year with the NMAA, Patton supervises a staff of nearly 40 and maintains a budget of $4.5 million. Ned Rifkin, undersecretary for art of the Smithsonian Institution, says the museum's vision under Patton is clear.

"Sharon Patton is awakening a somewhat overlooked and underappreciated organization and can help refocus the art agenda from one that was legitimately more ethnographic to one that is emphatically more aesthetic," says Rifkin. " Sharon's intelligence, sensitivity to these art forms, and rapport with collectors of this material everywhere will undoubtedly advance the museum's profile and mission."

— Laura Hadden (J07)

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