DENNITA SEWELL
departs Phoenix Art Museum to focus on her role
at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

Photos courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum

On August 13, after nearly two decades as the Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design at Phoenix Art Museum, Dennita Sewell will depart the Museum in order to take on a more active role at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. 

Above: Dennita Sewell at the opening of Emphatics: Avant-Garde Fashion, November 2016. Photo by Mark Peterman.

In the fall of 2017, in addition to her curatorial position at Phoenix Art Museum, Sewell joined the staff of ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Serving as a professor, her appointment was pivotal in the University’s decision to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fashion Program. Heading up the degreed program, she presents fashion in both a historical context and  global framework while helping students connect with fashion experts and industry professionals.

After completing an M.F.A. in Costume Design from Yale University, Sewell was hired as collections manager at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. Under department heads Richard Martin and Harold Koda, she realized her love for research on the historical costumes and collections. After six-and-a-half years on the job, she moved to Phoenix.

Sewell joined Phoenix Art Museum on January 10, 2000, and over nearly twenty years led a critical expansion of the Museum’s acclaimed fashion design collection, adding more than 3,000 objects to the fashion design collection which now numbers in excess of 8,000 objects dating from the 18th century to the present. In addition, Sewell curated dozens of exhibitions that received significant national press over the years, featured in publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Women’s Wear Daily and Elle. Since 2016, Sewell has divided her time between her curatorial role at Phoenix Art Museum and a new role overseeing the development of a Bachelor of Arts program in fashion with the School of Art at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. Sewell will now focus her attention exclusively on her growing role at ASU. 

Above, top left: Yeohlee Teng | Richard Serra, March 2017. Top right: Digital Print Fashion, March 2013. Bottom: Hollywood Costume, March 2014.

“On behalf of the Board of Trustee of Phoenix Art Museum, the staff, and most of all our community, we are incredibly grateful to Dennita Sewell for her outstanding work to elevate the fashion design program at the Museum on a national scale, specifically through her efforts to grow the collection and developing compelling exhibitions,” said Jon Hulburd, Chair of the Museum’s Board of Trustees. “Dennita leaves a lasting legacy of excellence, one that has been made possible in large part through the ongoing support of the Arizona Costume Institute, which has provided vital support for the Museum’s fashion design program for nearly 55 years. We are excited for the next generation of fashion design professionals at ASU who will benefit from her creative vision and expertise.” 

During her time with the Museum, Sewell developed a number of groundbreaking exhibitions that expanded beyond traditional presentations of historical fashions. In 2011, the Museum presented Fashion Independent, featuring the extraordinary custom-couture wardrobe of American-socialite and tastemaker Ann Bonfoey Taylor, gifted to the Museum in 2008. In 2015, the Museum premiered The White Shirt According to Me. Gianfranco Ferré, featuring a study of 27 examples of the iconic fashion staple and the hallmark of the legendary designer’s aesthetic. 

In 2016, Sewell curated Emphatics: Avant-Garde Fashion 1963-2013, featuring an archive of contemporary fashion and ephemera gifted to the Museum in 2015 by James and Karin Legato, owners of the legendary eponymous boutique in Pittsburgh. Sewell curated exhibitions that explored the intersection of fashion, art and even technology. In 2018, the Musuem presented its first virtual-reality exhibition Moonage Virtual Reality, which took visitors on a simulated journey through rock-and-roll fashion and culture and Pop Art. 

Above top, left and right: White Shirt According To Me. Gianfranco Ferré., November 2015. Bottom left: Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion, February 2018. Bottom right: Geoffrey Beene: Trapeze, November 2009. 

Throughout her time with the Museum, Sewell developed other compelling exhibitions that showcased the Museum’s fashion collection, featured the very best in contemporary fashion and more. These exhibitions included a study of the cape in both historical and modern design; a retrospective of 1920s fashion; and exhibitions that featured fashion designs influenced by the sea, as well as those that were inspired by automotive culture, graffiti culture and medievalism. In addition, she curated exhibitions exploring the work of some of history’s most prolific and influential designers, including Ralph Rucci, Iris van Herpen, Yeohlee Teng, Jacqueline Groag, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, Judith Leiber, Emilio Pucci, James Galanos and Cristóbal Balenciaga. 

“I have the greatest respect and admiration for Dennita,” said Jacquie Dorrance, Valley philanthropist, who endowed Sewell’s position with the Museum in 2016. “Dennita has been the face of the Arizona Costume Institute for nearly 20 years, and has brought national and international attention to our city and our Museum with her creativity, passion and talent in fashion design. I know I speak for many of her friends and colleagues when I say we will miss her so much and wish her the best in the next phase of her career.” 

Above, top left: Second Wednesdays, an ACI monthly luncheon and lecture. Top right: ACI Donor Party, March 2016. Bottom left: Dennita Sewell with guest speaker Stephen Jones at The 2018 ACI Holiday Party, December 2018. Bottom right: The 2018 ACI Holiday Luncheon, December 2018.  

Since 1966, fashion design exhibitions and acquisitions at Phoenix Art Museum have been made possible through the support of a community of donors known as the Arizona Costume Institute (ACI), a support group of the Museum first established to support the development of a fashion design collection composed of objects of both historical and aesthetic significance. In addition to their profound generosity, ACI has also spearheaded a robust array of enriching programs and resources that amplify the fashion collection and exhibitions, including lectures, films and a body of research materials housed in the Astaire Library of Costumes, part of the Museum’s Lemon Art Research Library. 

“Dennita’s impact on the vibrancy and success of Arizona Costume Institute over the past 19 years has played a vital role in ACI’s larger history, helping us to expand our impact on our community and the Museum,” said Kathie May, president of Arizona Costume Institute. “It was both incredibly fortunate and rare to have her vision and guidance for nearly two full decades, and I am grateful for the work she has done to prepare us for future success as we look to the next chapter in ACI’s long history.” 

The Museum will launch its international search for the next Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design in mid-August. The new curator will continue to maintain and grow the Museum’s fashion design collection, while bringing a fresh perspective to the development and interpretation of the Museum’s robust fashion design program. The recruitment posting will be available shortly at www.phxart.org/aboutus/careers