Detroiter to focus on inclusion as curator of Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

‘My mother always let me know that anything is possible,’

Rhea Combs, a native-Detroiter, was recently named a top curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Rhea Combs, a native-Detroiter, was recently named a top curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

DETROIT – After years of hard work, Rhea Combs was named a top curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The Detroiter said she hopes to bring innovation and inclusion to the gallery.

Combs spent countless hours at the DIA and said the first play she remembers watching was Dream Girls. Time Magazine named her one of the 12 leaders shaping the next generation of artists in 2019.

She credits Detroit with her spectacular rise.

“My parents, my mother in particular, always let me know that anything is possible,” Combs recalled.

She said her lifelong passion for art and culture started in the Motor City.

“All I remember is standing in front of this Diego Rivera mural and being awestruck, truly awestruck by the sort of the technical precision, the scale and the size and the way in which you can see people on a painting that you can connect to, that relate to you, that you feel some sense of connection,” Combs said.

The Southfield High School graduate went on to graduate from Howard University, received a Master of Arts degree from Cornell University and a Doctorate from Emory University.

Combs was named top curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery Tuesday.

“Oh, my God,” Combs recalled. “It was incredible. It was a pinch me moment.”

She’s bringing a unique and powerful perspective to her new role.

“There’s been a legacy of exclusion, let’s be very clear,” Combs said. “”I think all of these cultural institutions to start with really re-examining sort of why they are around and how they will be able to remain relevant for years to come.”

It starts with representation both as curator and with the pieces featured in the gallery.

“The exposure to having images that look like you, that reflect the range of Americans is is powerful,” Combs said. “It cannot be underestimated.”

Combs hopes her journey will inspire others and encourages young people to do what she did: find mentors to help guide you along the way.

“Seeking support when needed and making sure that you understand that your dreams and your values and the things that you want,” Combs said. “They’re yours, they’re real, they’re possible.”

More information can be found on the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s official website here.


About the Authors:

Priya joined WDIV-Local 4 in 2013 as a reporter and fill-in anchor. Education: B.A. in Communications/Post Grad in Advanced Journalism

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.