Williams, Sylvia H.
Washington, DC, USA
Museum director and historian of African art. Williams received a B.A. in art history from Oberlin College in 1957, where she later became a Trustee. She received an M.A. in art history from New York University's Institute of Fine Arts in 1975. Williams also studied at the Columbia University School of Library Science, and at the École Practique de l'Alliance Française in Paris. She began her career as a museum curator at the Brooklyn Museum in 1973 where she worked in the Department of African, Oceanic, and New World Cultures. In 1983, Williams was appointed Director of the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, D.C., where she supervised the museum's relocation to a building on the National Mall in 1987. She helped organize the exhibitions, Icons, Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa (1989), and Astonishment and Power: the Eyes of Understanding Kongo Minkisi (1993). The 1991 exhibition, The Art of the Personal Object highlighted the aesthetic value of utilitarian objects in African cultures. In the early 1990's, Williams began to focus on collecting contemporary African art, including photography. Her dedication to elevating the museum's reputation led to the acquisition of 845 works during her tenure. Williams scrutinized acquisitions based on their aesthetic qualities in an effort to emphasize the importance of connoisseurship in the appreciation and display of African art. In addition to her duties as museum director, she was also an adjunct assistant professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of New York University, and president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) from 1994-95.
Speeches Given by Sylvia H. Williams, 1936-1996. Washington, DC: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1996; and Strongman, Esther Williams. "The National Museum of African Art: a New Center for the Exchange of Ideas Between Cultures." In: Topic. Washington, DC: United States Information Agency No. 149, 1983, pp. 62-65; "The Central African collection, 1922-82." Apollo 115, no. 242 (April 1982): 264-267; and Khalil, Mohammad Omer; Nour, Amir I. M. Mohammad Omer Khalil, Etchings, Amir I.M. Nour, Sculpture. Washington, DC: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994; and Macgaffey, Wyatt.; Harris, Michael D. Astonishment and Power. Washington, DC: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1993.
"In Memoriam: Sylvia Williams," Museum News, May/June 1996; "In Memoriam," African Arts, Summer, 1996; "Seeing Africa in America," The Guardian (London), March 12, 1996; Obituary, New York Times, February 29, 1996; Obituary, Arts d'Afrique Noir, no. 98, Summer 1996.
LaNitra Michele Walker