Por­trait Gallery isn’t play­ing it safe un­der Sa­jet

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY PEGGY MCGLONE peggy.mcglone@wash­post.com

Hard to miss with her short plat­inum hair, Aus­tralian ac­cent and throaty laugh, Na­tional Por­trait Gallery Di­rec­tor Kim Sa­jet is bring­ing at­ten­tion— not to men­tion money and crowds — to the 47-year-old Smith­so­nian mu­seum, where she has un­leashed a se­ries of ex­per­i­men­tal projects, boosted the board’s mem­ber­ship and broad­ened the def­i­ni­tion of por­trait.

“I’m not good at safe,” Sa­jet, 50, said dur­ing a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion in her of­fice. “I’m very much about ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. I came in and said, ‘You know, noth­ing is a sa­cred cow. Let’s look at break­ing down the hi­er­ar­chies, ex­per­i­ment­ing and pi­lot­ing things.’ ”

The list of early ac­com­plish­ments is long and var­ied. In her first two years, Sa­jet com­mis­sioned artist Jorge Ro­dríguez-Ger­ada to cre­ate a six-acre land­scape por­trait on the Mall, cre­ated a show on artist and ed­u­ca­tor Dolores Huerta — mark­ing the first time a Latina was fea­tured in the lon­grun­ning “One Life” se­ries — and cre­ated a mul­ti­me­dia ex­hibit fo­cused on celebrity. Next month, she will host the mu­seum’ s first Amer­i­can Por­trait Gala, cel­e­brat­ing five in­di­vid­u­als whose por­traits are in the col­lec­tion.

“I think big­ger than I ever did be­fore,” Sa­jet said. “The big ges­ture is im­por­tant. The vi­sion thing, right? I worry less about the money. If I have a good idea, I think peo­ple will join me. So far that’s proven true.”

A new per­for­mance art se­ries, “Iden­tify,” is the lat­est ex­am­ple of her dif­fer­ent ap­proach. The gallery has com­mis­sioned five artists — Wilmer Wil­son, Martha McDon­ald, James Luna, J.J. McCracken and Maria Mag­dalena Cam­pos-Pons — to cre­ate site-spe­cific works for the gallery’s Great Hall. Sa­jet has asked the artists to ex­am­ine is­sues of race and gen­der as well as their per­sonal and fam­ily his­to­ries to present a new kind of ac­tive por­trait through mu­sic, move­ment and mono­logue.

The se­ries also pro­vides Sa­jet with a way to in­tro­duce mul­ti­cul­tural per­spec­tives and ideas into a his­tor­i­cal mu­seum that pro­fesses to tell the story of Amer­ica by por­tray­ing the peo­ple who shape its his­tory and cul­ture.

“Where are all the women and African Amer­i­cans?” Saje tasked, ac­knowl­edg­ing the crit­i­cism she hears .“We can’t cor­rect the ills of his­tory. Women and men and women of color — their por­traits weren’t taken. How are we go­ing to show the pres­ence of ab­sence?”

Born in Nige­ria and raised in A us tr alia, Sa­jet has worked in the United States for 20 years. Prior to the Por­trait Gallery, she served as pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety of Penn­syl­va­nia for six years and was se­nior vice pres­i­dent and deputy di­rec­tor of the Penn­syl­va­nia Academy of the Fine Arts be­fore that. She also worked at the Philadel­phia Mu­seum of Art and at mu­se­ums in Aus­tralia.

She has fo­cused on mak­ing the Por­trait Gallery more in­clu­sive by ac­quir­ing works rep­re­sent­ing di­verse artists and sub­jects and by in­cor­po­rat­ing Span­ish into the over­all communications strat­egy. She has hired three cu­ra­tors and has re­cruited 13 mem­bers of the mu­seum’s gov­ern­ing body.

Com­mis­sioner Amy Mead­ows de­scribes Sa­jet as a cheer­leader for the mu­seum whose bold vi­sion is rein­vent­ing a place many wrongly think is fo­cused only on dead white men.

“She re­spects cu­ra­tors and un­der­stands that a di­rec­tor must stay out of their way ,” Mead­ows said.

To sup­port her new ideas, Sa­jet raised $4.7 mil­lion in do­na­tions this year, al­most dou­ble the $2.5 mil­lion raised in 2013, when she ar­rived. The gallery’s an­nual bud­get is $9 mil­lion, and vis­i­tors top 1 mil­lion.

Her ten­ure has been marked by a few con­tro­ver­sies. There was a dust-up when the artist who painted the por­trait of Bill Clin­ton said he in­cluded a vis­ual ref­er­ence to Mon­ica Lewin­sky’s blue dress, and there have been protests over the dis­play of a bust of Mar­garet Sanger, con­sid­ered the founder of Planned Par­ent­hood. Last week, Texas Repub­li­cans Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep Louie Gohmert sent a let­ter to Sa­jet call­ing for the re­moval of the bust of San ger, who was al­lied with the eu­gen­ics move­ment that sup­ported the use of con­tra­cep­tives to con­trol the pop­u­la­tion of mi­nori­ties. Two dozen mem­bers of Congress signed the ap­peal.

Sa­jet re­sponded by not­ing that the mu­seum isn’t a Hall of Fame but a space to show­case lives both in­spi­ra­tional and com­pli­cated. “Sanger . . . is in­cluded in the mu­seum’s col­lec- tion not in trib­ute to all her be­liefs, many of which are now dis­cred­ited, but be­cause of her lead­ing role in early ef­forts to dis­trib­ute in­for­ma­tion about birth con­trol and med­i­cal in­for­ma­tion to dis­ad­van­taged women,” she said.

Sa­jet doesn’t shy away from th­ese dis­putes. “Amer­i­cans do be­lieve the Smith­so­nian is their mu­seum, and they treat it as theirs. When some­thing goes up, peo­ple pe­ti­tion us. We get let­ters. We are con­stantly crit­i­cized in a way that I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore,” she said. “We should be will­ing to take on di­a­logue.”

She’s al­ready brac­ing for the re­ac­tion to an ex­hi­bi­tion planned for 2017 that will fea­ture post-9/11 por­traits of sol­diers by con­tem­po­rary artists, and she’s be­gun to think about how the mu­seum ex­hibits the pres­i­den­tial por­traits. The prized Lans­downe por­trait of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, one of the cen­ter­pieces of the “Amer­ica’ s Pres­i­dents” ex­hi­bi­tion is com­ing out of the show in Fe­bru­ary for con­ser­va­tion. This gives her the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to re­ex­am­ine the pres­i­dents gallery, which she hopes to do for its 50th an­niver­sary in 2018.

“We’re go­ing to in­vite the pub­lic to help us, we’re go­ing to try a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent la­bel for­mats, tri­al­ing some kind of app or touch screens, to give peo­ple a sense of be­ing part of what we’re do­ing,” she said. “I would love to put the pres­i­dents into the con­text of global his­tory.”

“I think big­ger than I ever did be­fore.”

Kim Sa­jet


Kim Sa­jet, be­low, is di­rec­tor of the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, at right. She has worked to make the mu­seum more in­clu­sive and ex­per­i­ment more.

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