Curator Rhea Combs Joins the National Portrait Gallery as Director of Curatorial Affairs

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The National Portrait Gallery announced a new Chief Curator today, although they have changed the job title to Director of Curatorial Affairs. Rhea L. Combs, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) since 2013, will start the new position on May 10, 2021. According to a Portrait Gallery press release, Combs will work with the museum’s Curatorial, History, Conservation and Audience Engagement departments to draw connections between portraiture, biography, and identity.

“I look forward to working with the museum’s curatorial team, the Portrait Gallery’s leadership, and its Commissioners to examine the museum’s current collections and how we interpret stories surrounding various objects,” said Combs on April 5 via an email to BmoreArt. “The idea of expanding this august collection in all its realms— from time-based media art to commissioned works reflective of the country’s great diversity and the photography collection— offers many exciting prospects filled with great promise.”

“The idea of expanding this august collection in all its realms— from time-based media art, commissioned works reflective of the country’s great diversity, along with its photography collections are all exciting prospects filled with great promise.”
Rhea Combs

Consistently throughout her career, Combs has been a curator focused on the intersection of citizenship, race, and image making and has successfully told diverse American stories that bring people together and reenvision the way museums are engaged by visitors. In her role as curator of film and photography and head of the museum’s Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts at NMAAHC, Combs has played a leading role in the discovery of many significant photos, film, and other types of visual media that have successfully expanded a collective understanding of American history.

I had the pleasure of attending a 2019 lecture that Combs gave as part of the Fresh Talks series hosted by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) with art historian Sarah Lewis, where she spoke inspiringly about the power of building a new archive based from seemingly innocuous sources: auctions and estate sales, donations and dusty boxes, and, in many cases, private homes and interviews with family members of all races and backgrounds who have carried previously unknown, but historically relevant, stories from generation to generation. During the presentation and discussion at the women’s museum, Combs spoke with passion and humor about the surprising finds she has made, from tintypes to home movies, from lithographs to publication design, and the complex and interconnected lessons about American history she has been able to share through these objects and images.

One such object is a recently discovered photograph of Harriet Tubman. The photo, which shows Tubman sitting against a simple white background, captures the abolitionist in her mid-40s in the years following the Civil War. According to Time Magazine, the photo offers a new perspective on the “rarely photographed freedom fighter,” which is exactly the kind of object that has inspired the exhibitions that Rhea Combs has curated at NMAAHC and, in many cases, has drastically altered the way American history is recorded and perceived.


Portrait of Harriet Tubman, NAMAAC
Consistently throughout her career, Combs has been a curator focused on the intersection of citizenship, race, and image making and has successfully told diverse American stories that bring people together and reenvision the way museums are engaged by visitors.
Cara Ober

In her role at NMAAHC, a museum where tickets have been consistently sold out, Combs has built a massive archive of quotidian objects which challenge commonly held beliefs about American history, specifically the creative and groundbreaking roles of African Americans in American history. Combs’ exhibitions and projects there include Everyday Beauty: Photographs and Film from the Permanent CollectionRising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega CollegeThrough the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection of NMAAHC, the photography books series, Double Exposure, which includes Through the African American Lens: A Survey of NMAAHC’s photography collectionCivil Rights and the Struggle for EqualityAfrican American Women, Picturing Children, and Fighting for FreedomRepresent: Hip Hop Photography, and Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture.

Combs curated and organized the NMAAHC’s inaugural film festival in 2018, where she screened a number of iconic African-American films dealing with themes of power and place, among other subjects. In line with her curatorial vision at the museum, Combs sought out work from filmmakers whose work has not gotten the critical acclaim it deserved, as well as contemporary independent artists who have not found adequate support in popular theaters.

Film Festival at the National Museum of African American History and Culture / photo Anthony Wright

Prior to joining the staff at NMAAHC, Combs taught visual culture, film, race and gender courses at Chicago State University, Lewis & Clark College, and Emory University. Additionally, Combs has independently and successfully curated film exhibitions nationally and internationally for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, Black Public Media, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, to name a few.

She also worked as the assistant curator for the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta and as a pubic programs educator at the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago Historical Museum). Combs received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University, a Master of Arts degree from Cornell University, and a Doctorate from Emory University. Her writings have been featured in anthologies, academic journals, and exhibition catalogues on a range of topics including African American female filmmakers, black popular culture, visual aesthetics, filmmaking, and photography.

Combs will replace Brandon Fortune, who retired last spring as Chief Curator Emeritus after working at the National Portrait Gallery since 1987. The position has been renamed to reflect changing values at the institution and to show respect to Native American communities, but her role on the museum’s executive team and overseeing a team of curators, as well as the conservation department, will be consistent with the roles of past Chief Curators.

“We are delighted to welcome Rhea Combs to the National Portrait Gallery as the museum’s new director of curatorial affairs,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “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.”

“History makers, artists, and visitors—as we know—come from a variety of backgrounds and bring with them a range of perspectives,” said Combs. “It’s important to value and share different points of views in order to complicate various histories we share with our publics. I think the Portrait Gallery has been moving in this direction for a while and I want to help make sure we continue doing this. From a curatorial perspective it’s important to tell stories that challenge our understandings of history, expand notions of who we consider to be history makers, while also recognizing the central role artists from all walks of life play in that dynamic storytelling.”

The Portrait Gallery remains closed but there are a number of virtual programs underway.

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