David Ward always rereads the fine print. While giving his usual four-century tour of the National Portrait Gallery, he stops at the far wall where Charles Dana Gibson’s sketch of Theodore Roosevelt hangs. He shrugs after reading the third sentence on the painting’s label.
“We’re actually being a little unfair to Teddy here,” he says, pointing to the label, which says Roosevelt dismissed modern art at the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York City. “Teddy was not so much of a philistine; his judgment was a little more nuanced. Maybe I’ll change the label. It will be my first act as [senior] historian.”
After three decades, Ward, 60, is still refining the museum’s details and is not afraid to present history in new ways. Last month, the National Portrait Gallery named Ward senior historian, succeeding Sidney Hart. Since Ward arrived in 1982, he has offered historical perspective on a vast array of works and subjects, ranging from oil paintings of the early presidents to Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of LL Cool J.
But he has also witnessed vast changes in American culture, which are now represented on the walls he curates. As the historian who co-curates many of the museum’s exhibitions, he’s tasked with explaining the complex: why the Gallery is missing key figures or highlighting themes that other museums choose to ignore.
“I always have to remind people that we are driven by artwork; we don’t collect people,” Ward says. “We don’t have an oil painting of Dr. King because he was killed before an oil painting could be done of him. It’s not a slight on our part.”
Yet Ward is often the one to express these limits of the Gallery. Ward plays down his recent promotion to senior historian, saying that he was next in line for the job. But for some, Ward’s promotion is a welcome validation of his vision and arguably, his most memorable exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the 2010 award-winning exhibition of gay portraiture.
As co-curator of “Hide/Seek,” Ward became the chief defender of the exhibition after Smithsonian leadership removed a portion of artist David Wojnarowicz’s video installation “A Fire in My Belly,” following complaints from a Catholic group and members of Congress. The removal of the video — which Ward and Portrait Gallery leadership actively resisted — sparked an outcry from arts groups, museum leaders and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups opposed to censoring the exhibition. Ward maintained the curator’s presence in “Hide/Seek,” defending the exhibition amid political controversy, while also, like the historian he is, seeking to understand why the controversy erupted as it did.
“The thing with ‘Hide/Seek’ was that everyone [at the Portrait Gallery] recognized the curatorial work,” he says. “But it brought up the salient question, which is: Who is represented in the Portrait Gallery? Twenty five years ago there would have been antagonism to representing African Americans on these walls. Same thing with the feminist movement, putting women on the walls.”
Kim Sajet, director of the Portrait Gallery, says Ward’s place as senior historian is more about the future than his past successes. Indeed, they both share a vision of broadening the field of portraiture to include not only diverse portrayals of Americans, but also diverse types of art, including poetry. A published poet, Ward recently co-edited a book recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, “Lines in Long Array,” the first time the Smithsonian has commissioned works of poetry. His diverse interests — and the entrance of a greater diversity of disciplines into the Portrait Gallery — haven’t gone unnoticed.
“David is very thoughtful, the sort of person you want as a senior historian” Sajet says, noting that Ward served on the selection committee that chose her last year. “When you’re coming in, you need someone to really figure out who can help you advance your mission, and we share the same vision for the Portrait Gallery. I’m as much interested in history, contemporary art and multidisciplinary conversations, and he is, too. Being a practicing poet, he brings that kind of deep understanding of the artistic expression to his work.”
Ward came to the Gallery at age 28, after graduate studies at Warwick University in England and Yale. Along with “Hide/Seek,” he curated other celebrated exhibitions, including “Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets” and “One Life: Walt Whitman, a kosmos.”
Ward hopes that the National Portrait Gallery will continue to surprise. And yes, Ward will be going through every label on the wall, ensuring that the Portrait Gallery always reflects contemporary American culture.
“I’ve said we are a small museum that continually punches above its weight,” Ward says. “Maybe because we’re smaller, its enabled us to be responsive to shifts in the museum world and to pay attention to the non-political classes. We’re bringing in people who’ve helped to create American culture who wouldn’t have been considered by historians 30 years ago. I’m not sure we have a mission to be progressive, but I think it’s turned out that way.”