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.”