There is good news out of the National Portrait Gallery, which has proven itself an exception to the often dispiriting conformity and timorousness of other Smithsonian museums. David Ward, one of the co-curators of the Hide/Seek exhibition of gay portraiture, has been appointed Senior Historian of the museum. The Senior Historian oversees other historians and creates programming for the museum.
During the crisis over the critically acclaimed 2010 “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” in which Smithsonian Secretary Wayne G. Clough conceded to demands to censor the exhibition and remove a video by artist David Wojnarowicz, Ward and co-curator Jonathan Katz found themselves in the middle of a media firestorm. Ward handled the controversy with curmudgeonly aplomb, doing what his bosses in the Castle were incapable of doing: Patiently explaining the meaning and context of the video in question, and politely but firmly denying that its inclusion was an affront to Catholics, as claimed by the frequent cultural provocateur William Donahue, head of the New York-based Catholic League. The video was removed over vigorous protest, but Ward helped communicate a sense that the NPG had valiantly if vainly resisted the decision, and that it still valued the importance of scholarly and curatorial independence. It was a subtle act, and well played.
Ward is also a serious scholar and a substantial poet, in his spare time. One of his most recent exhibitions, “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets,” made its esoteric subject engaging and comprehensible, without skimping on the poetry. Ward was appointed to the position by NPG director Kim Sajet, who joined the museum in April.