Newly named Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Gus Casely-Hayford brings curatorial cool to D.C.
The offer arrived as a “ping” in his email inbox. Did Englishman Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford, comfortably ensconced in Hampstead, North London, want to move to Washington and become director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art? It didn’t take him long to decide.
“For me it’s not just a dream job in terms of what it demands of the individual, but the platform upon which it sits, within the Smithsonian family, and speaking to not just a Washington audience but a national audience and beyond to the world, was something that I couldn’t turn down,” Casely-Hayford says from the smart but unshowy office he’s occupied since early February.
Casely-Hayford—who writes and lectures widely on African culture, including for BBC broadcasts such as Lost Kingdoms of Africa—joins a crowded field in Washington. The foremost museum on African Art sits next door to the revitalized Freer and Sackler galleries of Asian art and is a short walk from Smithsonian big guns such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He says he relishes the company.
“Washington has one of the most culturally sophisticated audiences in a single city and some of the most diverse audiences as well” according to Casely-Hayford. They are the individuals he hopes to “engage in conversation,” adding, “my Ph.D. looks like nothing compared to the qualifications of most taxi drivers in Washington. Everywhere I go in Washington I see potential audiences.”
Having succeeded Johnnetta Betsch Cole (the museum’s now Director Emerita), Casely-Hayford comes to his new role at a time when demand for African art is booming, prices are soaring at auction, and, to him, the market is more exciting than anywhere else in the contemporary art world.
“What we’re seeing is a kind of confidence in [African] artists and galleries that they don’t need to look to Europe,” he says. “The artists aren’t trying to in any way copy [or] shadow the sort of arts that one would see in some of the more mainstream galleries featured at the likes of Frieze [art fair].”
“There’s a kind of continental confidence that I think is reflective of something that is more broadly happening, that we have our own voice and we aren’t afraid to use it,” he finishes. “So African art: It’s the future and it’s now.” Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 ve. SW, africa.si.edu
Photography by: Photography courtesy Jaimie Gramston