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Women’s History Month Spotlight: How Alumna Jane Carpenter-Rock Depicts Multiple Americas at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum

Carpenter-Rock says her time at Howard confirmed “her ability to be a Black woman professional in the arts,” while uplifting the diverse art that paints America’s vast communities

Jane Carpenter-Rock, Howard alumna and deputy director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Howard alumna

Passion is not something that is sought after it is planted within. An outer flame must spark inner devotion.  

So, when Jane Carpenter-Rock, Ph.D. (M.A. ’95), sat in a global humanities class in high school, the topic of art history resonated instantly. Iconography, the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject, was the day’s topic. 

“That’s when I really understood art to understand different places and times, different moments in time, different cultures, and topics that have inspired people throughout history,” Carpenter-Rock reminisced.  

The rest was history. Art history, that is.  

What was a required art elective has become a lifetime commitment for Carpenter-Rock. She currently serves as the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Deputy Director for Museum Content and Outreach, after being a curatorial intern for the Smithsonian’s advance level program internship as a Howard student over 20 years ago. 

For Women’s History Month, Carpenter-Rock shared how Howard lit her distinctive path in overseeing some of the nation’s most representative art pieces that speak to America’s diverse identities. 

“I knew that there must be an art history, a visual history of African Americans and I wanted to learn more about it,” Carpenter-Rock said. “I knew Howard was the place to go and study that. Howard had world renowned African American scholars and artists who were experts in that field.” 

That just opened the doors for me to a better understanding of the network of artists in the world, but particularly in the D.C. area.”

Leading the American Art Museum  

Today, Carpenter-Rock’s role at the museum is all about gathering others in the pursuit a “more complete” American narrative through a multitude of projects. She is a top administrator at the juncture of museum curators, the exhibition designers, and multiple departments such as communications, external affairs, and education.  

Carpenter-Rock says the American Art Museum must be a “welcoming institution” that houses many iterations of America’s communities. 

“We feel we have a responsibility to be good stewards of that artwork, to take care of it, but to share it as broadly as we can, and make sure that as many Americans as possible feel reflected on the walls on the museum,” Carpenter-Rock said.  

In her role with the Smithsonian, Carpenter-Rock has been able to share the work of some of her artistic heroes too. “Right now, we have a beautiful, wonderful exhibition of Alma Thomas,” she said of the artist, who in 1924 was Howard’s very first College of Fine Arts graduate. “She was a D.C. public school teacher for 30 years. To me, she is this iconic, inspirational figure of a Black woman who tried very hard to pursue a career in art, and a life of art.” 

Carpenter-Rock also named other Howard alumna part of SAAM exhibitions such as Bisa Butler, whose work “Harlem Hell Fighters” is in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

But executing and coordinating artistic excellence at the nation’s American art museum takes years of craftswoman's dedication, as Carpenter-Rock has lived many artistic lives, some that she is now guiding as the deputy director.  

“I worked for this gallery in Georgetown called Parish Gallery,” she said. One of her Howard professors encouraged her to apply. “That just opened the doors for me to a better understanding of the network of artists in the world, but particularly in the D.C. area.” 

Carpenter-Rock posing with artist and gallery owner Norman Parish II.  “I worked at his gallery, Parish Gallery in Georgetown, while I was a student at Howard.”  Carpenter-Rock said.
Carpenter-Rock posing with artist and gallery owner Norman Parish II.  “I worked at his gallery, Parish Gallery in Georgetown, while I was a student at Howard.”  Carpenter-Rock said.

She’d go on to work all over the world in art administrative roles, such as the U.S. Department of State, directing the Foreign Service Institute’s Orientation Division, and as deputy director for the National Museum of American Diplomacy. From 2013-2016, Carpenter-Rock was the public affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Cape Town, South Africa. In addition to these roles, Carpenter-Rock was a predoctoral fellow before earning her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Michigan.  

The Influence of Howard’s Storied Art Program  

Many artists sit on her lists of inspiration, but her mother, Delores Carpenter is her first and greatest muse.  

A second-generation Howardite, her mother, Delores Carpenter was one of the first women to graduate with a masters of divinity degree from the School of Divinity in 1968. “By far, my greatest female inspiration has been my mother, Rev. Dr. Delores Carpenter, she has been a trailblazer for women in ministry,” Carpenter-Rock said. “She also pastored churches for over 30 years, at a time when not many women pastored churches. She has taught me the power of pursuing my dreams and using my voice to help others.” Her father, a Navy chaplain for 30 years, also attended Howard. 

Her two-year master’s program familiarized her with the diversity of America’s art, especially within African American art. Classes with the beloved, late College of Fine Arts professor Tritobia Hayes Benjamin and Floyd Coleman, under the decanal leadership of Jeff Donaldson, the cofounder of the Chicago Black art collective AfriCOBRA, who encouraged her to explore the historical and cultural meanings of the African American’s art depictions.  

“Artist of the Harlem Renaissance were grappling with, ‘What did it mean to create African American Art? What did it mean to be Black?’” Carpenter-Rock said. “During the Black Power Movement...to know that there were artists working right alongside political activists, musicians and writers to empower African Americans was extremely exciting for me.” 

Jane Carpenter, Frank Smith, Floyd Coleman

Jane Carpenter-Rock at Parish Gallery in Washington, D.C. with Howard University Art Professor and AfriCOBRA member Frank Smith (middle) and Howard Fine Arts Department Chair Floyd Coleman (right) in 2000, right after Carpenter graduated with her masters. “I worked at Parish Gallery for two years. Floyd Coleman was my thesis advisor and Department of Fine Arts Chairman from 1987 to 1998. He started the James A. Porter Colloquium in 1990 at Howard University, which has become today the leading academic forum on African American fine art.” Carpenter-Rock said. (Source: Jane Carpenter-Rock)