National Portrait Gallery announces new Director of Curatorial Affairs

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National Portrait Gallery announces new Director of Curatorial Affairs
Rhea L. Combs, director of curatorial affairs, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Abe Mohammadione / Ideas United.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has announced Rhea L. Combs as its new director of curatorial affairs, effective May 10. Combs comes to the Portrait Gallery from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, where she has served as curator of film and photography and head of the museum’s Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts. At the Portrait Gallery, Combs will work with the museum’s Curatorial, History, Conservation and Audience Engagement departments to draw connections between portraiture, biography and identity.

“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.”

“I look forward to working with the talented team of curators and colleagues at the National Portrait Gallery,” said Combs, who has a doctorate in American studies. “I welcome the opportunity to build on the exciting momentum and the Portrait Gallery’s long-standing history of excellence while ushering in promising, new possibilities.”

Combs’ most recent exhibitions and projects at the National Museum of African American History and Culture include the museum’s inaugural photography exhibition, “Everyday Beauty: Photographs and Film from the Permanent Collection,” as well as “Represent: Hip Hop Photography” and “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture.” She also curated exhibitions before the museum’s official opening, including “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College,” co organized by the High Museum of Art, and “Through the African American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection of NMAAHC.” She also co-developed the popular book series Double Exposure, which uses a theme-based approach to present photographs from the museum’s collection.

Before joining the Smithsonian, Combs taught visual culture, film, race and gender courses at Chicago State University, Lewis & Clark College and Emory University. In addition, she has independently 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. She has also worked at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta and the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago Historical Museum).

Combs received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University, a Master of Arts degree from Cornell University and a doctorate from Emory University. Her writings, which often center on Black popular culture, visual aesthetics, African American female filmmakers and other aspects filmmaking and photography, have been featured in anthologies, academic journals and exhibition catalogs.

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