Margo Smith Announces Retirement in 2025

Margo Smith

After 27 years as the director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, Margo Smith AM will retire in June 2025. Kluge-Ruhe is one of the most significant collections of Indigenous Australian art in the world with more than 3,600 artworks in its care. It is the center for Indigenous Australian art in the United States and an exemplar of respectful and collaborative relationships with artists and knowledge holders.

Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa says, Margo’s deep respect for Aboriginal people and their culture has shined brightly during her time as director. Her tireless work and success in growing Kluge-Ruhe will have a lasting impact here at UVA for generations to come.” 

Smith began working with John W. Kluge’s private collection of Indigenous Australian art in 1995 while a graduate student in Anthropology at the University of Virginia (UVA). Professor Howard Morphy mentored Smith and together they convinced Kluge to donate his collection to UVA in 1997. The museum opened to the public in a historic house in 1999 with Smith as the founding director. 

Smith says her first instinct when Kluge-Ruhe came to UVA was to ensure the collection would have a lasting impact for the University and the Charlottesville community. While limitations of space, staff, and budget constrained the museum’s growth, she took advantage of every opportunity to raise awareness about Indigenous Australian art. “Over the years, Kluge-Ruhe has worked in some capacity with just about every department and program across the University and with many local festivals and organizations,” Smith notes. 

With UVA partners, Kluge-Ruhe received funding from the Mellon Foundation in 2016 to hire curator Henry Skerritt. This was a turning point for the museum, says Smith, who previously had managed the museum and acted as curator while also teaching undergraduate courses. With Skerritt’s experience curating larger touring exhibitions, Kluge-Ruhe could take on significant projects such as Madayin: Eight Decades of Aboriginal Australian Bark Paintings from Yirrkala, which will be presented by the Asia Society New York in September. 

Smith has recruited exceptionally motivated and professional staff and Advisory Council members, who have joined her in steering Kluge-Ruhe toward success. The museum has garnered international accolades for its ambitious exhibitions and publications and received major grants from Creative Australia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Getty Foundation among others. 

During the past year, Smith has been part of a team working on a Center for the Arts, which is envisioned as the future home of Kluge-Ruhe and The Fralin Museum of Art, the Departments of Music and Dance and a Performing Arts Center in a central location on UVA Grounds. Smith will happily relinquish this project to a future director who, she says, can “take Kluge-Ruhe to the next level and beyond!” 

In considering her legacy, Smith is most proud of the opportunities Kluge-Ruhe has provided for Indigenous Australian artists and cultural practitioners. The museum has hosted the first experience of the United States and international travel for many Indigenous Australians. “Not only has this expanded their world views, but also they have seen firsthand how their arts and cultures are received and the impact they can have on the world stage.” 

The relationships and friendships forged over time are a big part of the “Kluge-Ruhe Way.” “We are not just about advancing the museum’s objectives,” says Smith. “We are part of a much bigger story that has ripple effects – it lifts people up and offers unique and rare opportunities. We are creating and fostering networks that have significant implications both now and in the future.” Kluge-Ruhe Advisory Council co-chair Jilda Andrews reflects on Smith’s leadership saying, “Kluge Ruhe has become a dynamic global platform where Indigenous Australian knowledges are engaged and celebrated. We have so much to offer the world right now; through our art and cultural practice, we are able to make our unique contribution.”

Smith admits that the things she finds most gratifying from many years working in the museum aren’t the splashy exhibitions or awards. She refers to Kluge-Ruhe’s Strategic Plan 2021-26, developed with the Advisory Council and staff. Co-chair of the Advisory Council, Jimmy Harris (COM 80) said, "Kluge-Ruhe's impeccable reputation and groundbreaking work gave us the license to think big and feel confident that we would deliver on the promise of the strategies. This was due in no small part to Margo's efforts in championing Indigenous Australian art and culture around the world." 

For her service to Australia and the University of Virginia, Smith was made an honorary Member of the Order of Australia in 2015 and received the Thomas Jefferson Award for Service in 2023. 

She credits her supportive family, especially her husband, Tom Cogill, for enabling her to focus intently on her career. With no definite post-retirement plans, Smith is looking forward to the luxury of time. “I am going to adjust to a different pace and see what bubbles to the surface.” 

An international search for Kluge-Ruhe's new Director will begin soon. Any queries can be addressed to the search chair, Professor Douglas Fordham,

Photograph by Tom Cogill