UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 15 Winter 21 Library
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
MUSIC & Alumni Spotlight

Internship to Curator of Music and Performing Arts

Dr. Steven Lewis

Internships matter. Just ask Steven Lewis. As a doctoral student in Critical and Comparative Studies at the McIntire Department of Music, Lewis spent a year working for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. His work found its way into a variety of aspects of the museum, including the popular exhibit "Musical Crossroads," which told the story of African American music and how it has influenced African American history and our nation's history as a whole. 

Listen for Yourself

and plan your visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

It was his first experience working in a museum setting, but it would not be his last. Lewis went on to become the founding Curator of the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. He was able to build a collection of more than 1,500 artifacts and work with the exhibit designers and curatorial team to build a permanent music exhibition. 

Earlier this year, he learned that his work at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture was far from done. "My former supervisor there, Dwandalyn Reece, a mentor of mine, took on the role of Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs. As a result, there was an opportunity to apply for the Curator of Music and Performing Arts position," Lewis said. "It was a dream of mine to take on a position like this at the museum, a dream job and an amazing opportunity to educate the public about the history of Black music and how Black music is an essential part of Black history and the Black experience overall." 

Lewis credits the mentorship of Reece and of Dr. John Fleming, with whom he worked at the Museum of African American Music, and Dr. Dina Bennett, the head curator of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, for helping him land a job that brings such great opportunity and carries with it great responsibility. "I think the biggest responsibility I feel as it relates to the music," Lewis said, "is making sure that the public, on the one hand, understands the diversity and complexity of the Black music tradition and the way that Black musical expression is an outgrowth of the Black experience, and on the other hand to make sure that older or lesser-known traditions within Black music stay within the public awareness in some kind of way." 

Lewis sees his role as curator as maintaining that story in its fullness. "Not only is it one or two of the most popular traditions of the moment," he said, "but it is illuminating how all of these different idioms within Black music reflect different aspects of Black culture around the country." 

One of the most exciting parts of his new job, Lewis said, is the chance to highlight little-known contributions and artists within the African American music communities. "One thing that many people don't know about is the history of African American country music, which is something I worked on quite a bit in Nashville," Lewis said. He pointed to songwriters like Alice Randall and pioneering instrumentalists like DeFord Bailey as examples. He pointed out the same is true in the classical world, which features prominent names like Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes and lesser-known but important composers like Margaret Bonds and Florence Price. 

The work Lewis is doing goes beyond music itself. "The more you understand about the Black music tradition," he said, "the deeper insight you have on the way that Black people were able to survive and develop a unique culture against all odds here in America. I think the study of music gives you an entryway into understanding those aspects of the development of African American culture in terms of the way people responded to the various challenges they faced throughout history."

Much of the groundwork for Lewis's success today, he said, was laid during his time at UVA, both from the Mcintire Department of Music and from the Jefferson Scholars, where he served as a music fellow. "From the time I started grad school here, I was already involved in these various aspects of Black history and culture and in looking at the ways in which Black music is reflective of the broader trends in African American culture and African American thought and history. I can honestly say I would not be where I am now were it not for all of the advice, support, and enthusiasm I got from my teachers and from all of the people who supported me all the way through my Ph.D. studies."

Read the next story

We Hope This Art Finds You Well