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Stephanie Stebich

Year of Graduation: 
1984
Stephanie Stebich

"The challenge is understanding incoming generations who are more diverse than ever."

Art has been a constant in the life of Stephanie Stebich ’84, from when she played in the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum while her mother, an art historian, was working, to the time she taught a class on contemporary art in her senior year Art History course at Exeter.

Earlier this year, after an already distinguished career in the art museum field, Stebich was named the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the Renwick Gallery, in Washington. She steers an institution with one of the world’s most significant collections of American fine art and contemporary craft, with 43,000 objects and a $21 million budget.

“This is an institution I’ve always admired,” Stebich says. “It’s an art museum where people have long-standing ties and memories not only in Washington but around the world.”

Leading a Smithsonian museum seems a natural career milestone for Stebich. Her appreciation of art and history was nurtured by her parents, German immigrants who moved to the New York City area in the late 1960s. “I was fortunate to grow up in a family that was interested in art and visited museums regularly,” she says. Her mother, Ute, returned to school when Stebich and her brothers were young, earning an art history degree. Her father, Gerhard, a refugee during World War II, instilled in his children the importance of knowledge. “He lost his home and family belongings during the war and told us, ‘What you put in your head, no one can take away from you,’” Stebich says.

Exeter gave Stebich the opportunity to explore her burgeoning interest. Recognizing that spark, her art instructor, H. Nichols B. Clark, suggested she teach a segment on contemporary art to her class. She prepared by visiting New York galleries, collecting slides and strategizing how to teach modern art concepts. “Those are the kinds of experiences at Exeter that forever change you,” she says. “They challenge you but give you confidence.” Another skill gained at the Academy: “It’s perfect training to be a museum director,” she quips. “You attend classes six days a week, and I now work six days a week!”

Stebich received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. She landed an internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a fellowship at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both in New York City. She went on to assume assistant director positions at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. From 2005-17, she was director of the Tacoma Art Museum, where she oversaw a renovation that doubled the museum’s exhibition space, added 2,000 items to its collection (including an important compilation of Western American art and the largest collection of glass works by Tacoma-born artist Dale Chihuly) and raised $37 million for a capital and endowment campaign. Stebich oversaw more than 100 exhibitions during her tenure in Tacoma, including “Art AIDS America” and “Edvard Munch and the Sea.” She also served as a trustee of the Association of Art Museum Directors and currently serves as the American Alliance of Museums.

Stebich is adept at building connections, whether it’s between museums and their audiences, museums and donors, or artists and visitors. She’s interested in working with the other Smithsonian museums to “tell our American story comprehensively” and continue making SAAM and the Renwick Gallery relevant to their communities. Despite threatened cuts to arts funding both nationally and locally, Stebich believes museums are important community touchpoints. “Museums are doing a better job of engaging visitors,” she says. “However, we need to do more around diversity, equity and inclusion. The challenge is understanding incoming generations who are more diverse than ever, their needs and interests, and rethinking the museum experience. It’s an exciting time to be leading the nation’s American art museum.”

—Debbie Kane

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.