Elizabeth "Betsy" Broun, who has led SAAM and the Renwick since 1989, is retiring at the end of the year. Her tenure has been marked by groundbreaking exhibitions, digital innovation, new educational opportunities, and a push to broaden our collections of contemporary, folk, self-taught, African American, Latino, and new media arts.
What links these ideas is Betsy's conviction in the power of art to tell the story of the American experience. It's her belief that people come to the museum not for a lesson in art history but to see themselves, learn about others, and become enriched by a work of art. And as we've become more "social" in our looking and connecting, under her watch, the museum has embraced innovation not just as a necessary change, but a welcome partner in telling the story of America through objects in new and exciting ways.
In 1994, she addressed the Smithsonian's Commission on the Future and remarked, "Because we live in a new world shaped profoundly by museum technologies, we must examine how it affects the traditional, 'nineteenth-century' world of museum objects." Flash forward to the Renwick's current WONDER exhibition and its tremendous response on social media platforms, especially Instagram. As someone who works in the museum's Office of Media and Technology, her ideas from this time period strike me as prescient. During the same talk she said, "In the third century of our national experience, art could at last find a meaningful place in American life if we choose to use the objects of the past and technologies of the future to make the right connections."
Keeping those plates spinning at the same time—past, future, as well as present—is a remarkable achievement, just one among many in a long and distinguished career. This necessary balance also resonates in the museum's two National Historic Landmark buildings. Both have been renovated and re-envisioned under her leadership to create forward-looking environments that respect both the historical and the contemporary.
On a personal note, Betsy supported the creation of Eye Level more than ten years ago, allowing us to become the first Smithsonian museum with a blog. It was new way to tell stories, and engage with our visitors no matter where they live. I came on board during Eye Level's sophomore year and have to tell you that Betsy reads each post. Because of her deep knowledge of American Art (and dare I add Strunk and White), the posts always improve. For that, my colleagues and I at Eye Level are grateful.