Actor Anna Deavere Smith Will Deliver the 2024 Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in a Novel Format: Performance


Anna Deavere Smith, legendary actress of stage and screen, will give the 2024 A. W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. She’ll become the 73rd lecturer since the prestigious annual series of scholarly talks was inaugurated in 1949 with the goal of offering the “results of the best contemporary thought and scholarship bearing upon the subject of the fine arts.” 

Across four consecutive Sundays from April 28 to May 19, 2024, the actress will stage a new performative work called .

What exactly the presentation will cover is still something of a mystery. Smith has conceived the piece as a sequel to , her 2015 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, for which she embodied notable figures of the past and present—including journalist Studs Terkel and Congressman John Lewis—in an effort to outline what it means to be an American. Like most of Smith’s works, the lecture was deeply personal and inspired by first-hand interviews she did with her subjects.  

“When I look back at the list of the lecturers from the 1950s on—what I can say is, I am honored to have been invited,” Smith told Artnet News, her enthusiasm couched in dry wit. “I am also excited to be able to spend some time with the people who work at the National Gallery. It’s going to be a rich time.” 

With her planned performance, Smith represents something of a departure for the Mellon Lectures series, which has historically featured bookish academics—people like Hal Foster, Michael Fried, Leo Steinberg—presenting recent research.  

This year’s lecturer was anthropologist Stephen D. Houston, who explored the writing systems of ancient Mexico and Central America. In 2022, scholar Richard J. Powell discussed the concept of “colorstruck,” a 20th-century term connoting a cultural prejudice against people with darker complexions. 

“Smith’s presentations will contribute to the public discourse about the powerful role that performing arts can play in exploring our world and humanity,” said Steven Nelson, dean of the NGA’s Advanced Study in the Visual Arts Center, in a statement. 

One of the most respected actresses of her generation, Smith has appeared in TV shows like and , and films like and . But her talent has always shone brightest on stage, where she pushed the boundaries of the medium with one-woman plays that touch on current issues of race, class, and the criminal justice system. Fires in the Mirror, from 1993, explored the Crown Heights riots of two years prior, while 1994’s Twilight: Los Angeles examined the uprisings that followed the police brutality against Rodney King. 

Smith has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for drama and two Tony Awards, and was the recipient of the prestigious 2013 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for achievement in the arts. She currently teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. 


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