Martin E. Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery since 2008, announced Monday he is stepping down at the end of the month.
A statement from the museum said Sullivan, 68, is relinquishing the director role because of health reasons but will become a senior scholar at the Smithsonian on June 4. Wendy Wick Reaves, the gallery’s curator of prints and drawings, will be acting director.
The Portrait Gallery, a museum dedicated to visual biography, is usually a quiet, thought-provoking place, but in late 2010 became the center of a firestorm when the Smithsonian secretary pulled a video from a groundbreaking exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”
The video, by David Wojnarowicz, contained a few seconds of a crucifix crawling with ants and drew the ire of Republican congressmen and conservatives. The decision prompted protests by arts activists, artists and some donors. The exhibit drew a record number of visitors.
Sullivan stood by the work and selections of his curators.
That controversy overshadowed efforts under Sullivan to give the museum a more contemporary focus while preserving its traditional role as a gallery of presidents and famous faces. The museum had moved back into a renovated building in 2006, sharing a historic space with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Recent exhibitions include “Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” “The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders” and “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter.”
Before joining the Smithsonian, Sullivan was chief executive of the Historic St. Mary’s City Commission, the site of Maryland’s first capital. He also was director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the New York State Museum in Albany.
In an earlier Washington job, Sullivan abruptly resigned in 2003 from the chairmanship of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee. He said in a 2008 interview with The Washington Post that he thought the looting that occurred in Iraq of that country’s antiquities had been preventable.
Reaves established the gallery’s graphics art department in 1974. The author of many books, Reaves was the host curator for “Calder: A New Language” and the Stein show.