Smithsonian taps NY cultural director to lead African American museum

Noble Horvath

Young, 49, the poetry editor of the New Yorker and the author of 11 books of poetry, said he is eager to continue Bunch’s efforts to record, represent and interpret the stories of African Americans. “The museum has really cemented the case that we’re telling an American story that is […]

Young, 49, the poetry editor of the New Yorker and the author of 11 books of poetry, said he is eager to continue Bunch’s efforts to record, represent and interpret the stories of African Americans.

“The museum has really cemented the case that we’re telling an American story that is particular but also for all Americans,” he said. “It’s a leader in how a museum can be a creative place of engagement, a place that speaks to us on lots of different levels. How can we chronicle this particular moment? How can we provide a look at the pandemics of covid and racism? I’m looking forward to continuing to do that in an innovative way.”

Since 2016, Young has been director of the Schomburg Center, a division of the New York Public Library and an important cultural organization in Harlem. During his tenure, he organized a literary festival, raised $10 million in gifts and grants and built the collection, including acquiring the manuscript of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which includes a once-lost chapter.

During the center’s pandemic-related closure, Young created a Black Liberation Reading List with 95 books and coordinated programs. He also brought the Harlem-based archives of Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Sonny Rollins, Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite, and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to the center as part of “Home to Harlem,” a program that focuses on how artists shaped, and were shaped by, the neighborhood.

“All of these archives speak to how Harlem is a cultural capital and how it has been really important to shaping Black culture,” he said, noting that Harlem is where Belafonte discovered theater and activism and where Brathwaite works now.

Bunch cited Young’s technological savvy as a strength.

“He understands that part of the opportunity to engage new audiences, younger audiences, is going to be done digitally,” Bunch said, noting that the museum has a vast reservoir of content to be shared with the public. “He can dip into it with his digital knowledge.”

Bunch noted that it may be the first time in Smithsonian history that a museum director appointed his successor. “I am both unbelievably happy that somebody of his caliber is going to carry on, and a little sad. I can’t go back,” Bunch said with a laugh.

Young graduated from Harvard College and earned an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He taught creative writing and English for 11 years at Emory University, where he was curator of its poetry library.

The African American Museum, with 180 full-time employees and a $51 million annual budget, is a substantially larger organization than Schomburg, which has 80 employees and an $18 million budget. The Schomburg collection is much larger than African American Museum’s, consisting of more than 11 million manuscripts, photographs, rare books and film. It attracts about 300,000 visitors a year, a figure that grew by 40 percent during Young’s tenure. The African American Museum welcomed 2 million visitors last year.

The Smithsonian declined to disclose Young’s salary.

Interim director Spencer Crew has led the institution while a national search was underway. Working with the executive search firm Spencer Stuart since the fall of 2019, the search committee included three senior Smithsonian officials, including acting Undersecretary for Museums and Culture Kevin Gover, and five members of the African American Museum’s advisory council, including Elizabeth Alexander and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell.

Young acknowledged the challenge of leading an institution in this moment of racial and political division but said museums are places for divisions to heal.

“When we lost John Lewis this summer, I was struck how one life can change a nation,” he said. “The museum can really powerfully think with people and expose them to different histories.”

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