The Director's Essay Prize

Founded in 2019, the Director’s Essay Prize fosters leading research in the field of visual biography and American portraiture. The award includes a cash prize of $3,000 for the author of a published essay that explores and enriches the interdisciplinary nature of American art, biography, history and cultural identity. The recipient will be asked to present a paper on their essay topic at the National Portrait Gallery during an award ceremony in fall 2022.

To qualify, scholarly essays must have been published in print or online within the past three years (details below). The award is by nomination only, and authors and publishers may not self-nominate. The deadline for nominations is March 7, 2022, at 5 p.m. ET.

The Director’s Essay Prize complements the Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a triennial juried contemporary art exhibition established in 2006 and is specifically dedicated to supporting the next wave of written scholarship on portraiture.

Director’s Essay Prize Winner, 2022

Young Black woman with large earrings standing in front of a painting
Tiffany Barber


The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has announced Tiffany E. Barber, Ph.D., assistant professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware, as the winner of the 2022 Director’s Essay Prize. Her essay “Narcissister, a Truly Kinky Artist,” published in Art Journal’s spring 2020 issue, was chosen for its interdisciplinary contributions to the fields of American art, biography, history and cultural identity.

>> Read more about this year's winner

Previous Winners

bust-length view of a woman with chin-length brown hair

The winner of the inaugural Director's Essay Prize was Jennifer Van Horn, PhD, Assistant Professor of Art History and History at the University of Delaware. Her essay, “’The Dark Iconoclast’: African Americans’ Artistic Resistance in the Civil War South.” was published in The Art Bulletin, (Volume 99, Issue 4.) 

Jennifer Van Horn presented her essay at the National Portrait Gallery on September 6, 2019 

Bust-length view a a young woman with long black hair and glasses

Honorable mention went to Tara Kohn, PhD, Lecturer in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University, for her essay “Elevated: Along the Fringes of 291 Fifth Avenue”  published in Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, (Volume 4, Issue 2.)