The National Portrait Gallery has an identity opportunity. One might be tempted to call it a problem if Kim Sajet weren’t at the helm.
“Just because we’re historic doesn’t mean we need to be old and boring . . . we’re not,” Sajet said. “One of the things I never understood is why we think of history in the past. Every time we look at a painting, we’re looking at it in the present. In a sense, everything is contemporary.”
That forward-thinking vision made Sajet, 47, what Smithsonian officials have called the “obvious successor” to Martin E. Sullivan, who stepped down due to health concerns in May. The Smithsonian poached Sajet from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where she was chief executive and president. By all accounts, she’s skilled at making the old become new, eager to shed the stodgy associations that sometimes accompany the word “portraiture.”
Not that the Portrait Gallery wasn’t well on its way to an image makeover in 2006, when it reopened in the revamped Old Patent Office Building at a buzzing intersection of Penn Quarter, away from the Mall’s tourist trail. Last year, it staged the provocative exhibition “ Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter”in the wake of the oft-cited controversial “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” which became a national controversy after a video depicting ants crawling on a crucifix was removed due to complaints from Catholic groups and members of Congress.
In a time when galleries are hankering for exhibitions that feel fresh, disruptive or innovative — to use digital lingo — a gallery that specializes in history and portraiture faces an uphill battle in attracting visitors committed to the avant-garde. Like museums or performing arts centers that cater to general audiences, the Portrait Gallery must simultaneously appease those who prize tradition, as it did with the recent “1812: A Nation Emerges,” while appealing to those enigmatic millennials with iPads in their hands, as it will do in 2014 with “American Cool,” an exploration of the term and its origins.
The National Portrait Gallery staff is confident that Sajet can broaden its reach and find the delicate balance between old and new.
“She struck everybody as the candidate who should get the job right away,” said David Ward, a historian at the Portrait Gallery who was part of the committee that chose Sajet. “Charisma is a word that Washington throws around too freely, but she had a lively, energetic presence that is really striking.”
“She seems to be a strong leader,” said Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture. “She has a strong vision for the Portrait Gallery regarding issues of cultural hybridity and identity.”
That’s museumspeak for understanding changing demographics and the challenges galleries face, particularly those museums that may seem fuddy-duddy at first blush. “We’re not your grandfather’s Portrait Gallery with Chippendale’s furniture and dusty portraits,” Ward added. “Kim Sajet will amplify that.”
On a Friday afternoon at the gallery last month, Sajet spoke, in her endearing Australian accent, about how the National Portrait Gallery, with its relatively small staff of 65 and an annual budget of $9 million, can continue to stage exhibitions that bring in more than 1 million visitors each year. In five years, the number of visitors rose by nearly 300,000, indicating that exhibitions are resonating with the public.
“The sweet spot for the National Portrait Gallery is that we put a human face on knowledge and history,” Sajet said. “People love biography and celebrity. They’re touchstones for people. They’ll say, ‘I grew up when JFK was in office or when Lucille Ball was on television.’ [Portraiture] brings a one-on-one connection with people.”
But she’s aware that nostalgia alone doesn’t raise money in an ultra-competitive fundraising climate. “The staff has big ideas, so we need to raise more money, bottom line,” she says flatly. “But what I’ve found, that is particularly American, is that there is a tremendous culture of philanthropy here. The National Portrait Gallery is beloved, and we need to help people understand how they can support us.”
It might seem odd that Sajet would be such a proponent of American history and identity, given that she’s only lived in the United States for 16 years.
Born in Nigeria to parents of Dutch nationality, she moved to Melbourne at age 4, spending her childhood in Australia. “Hence the non-accent,” she jokes.
Sajet earned a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Melbourne and studied art history as an undergraduate. She moved to the States in 1997 with her husband, Tony Meadows, so he could complete a PhD at Temple University in Philadelphia. She earned a master’s degree in art history at Bryn Mawr College.
“I fell in love with Philadelphia and the country,” Sajet said. She now has two teenage sons, one born in Australia, the other in the United States. The youngest has moved with her to Washington, while her husband and oldest son will stay in Philadelphia to finish out his senior year.
“So I very much have one foot in each country,” Sajet added.
In Philadelphia, she became president and chief executive of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 2007, where she helped spearhead the charge to keep Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic” from leaving Philadelphia. When Thomas Jefferson University wanted to sell the famous painting, she secured the purchase of the painting for $68 million via a museum-sharing arrangement with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She also has a history of fundraising success that the Portrait Gallery, undoubtedly, will put to good use. She raised $15 million in six years for the endowment, renovations and projects of the Historical Society.
It’s also surprising that Sajet, a historian, seems most passionate when speaking about digital technology. But Sajet believes that embracing mobile technology will deepen the gallery’s impact across the country.
“We’re terribly fortunate to be living in age when technology means we can have access to so many digitized collections,” Sajet said. “It never replaces the object, but studies show that the more you put online, the more people want to come to your institution.”
At the Historical Society, she founded a digital archival that contains more than 65,000 images of historical letters and artwork. Sajet hopes to revamp the digital initiatives at the Portrait Gallery, broadening access for those who never step foot in the door.
But for all the talk of broadening scope and outreach, Sajet’s immediate concerns include learning the ropes of the massive Smithsonian bureaucracy and ensuring that the museum represents all American experiences.
“I want to be very careful of being too ‘rah rah America,’ ” Sajet said. “We have incredible stories on these walls, but one of the reasons America is great is because it has learned from its mistakes. It keeps evolving.”