She has raised more than $15 million during her tenure at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, funding public programming, art acquisitions and building renovations. In 2006, she helped engineer the purchase of Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic” from Thomas Jefferson University for a record $68 million via a museum-sharing arrangement with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, ensuring that the work, painted in 1875, would stay in Philadelphia.
“She has great experience both on the history and art side and combination of the two, which is what the National Portrait Gallery does,” said Richard Kurin, Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture and chairman of the search committee that selected Sajet. “She’s had great experience running arts organizations. She’s an expert fundraiser and brings such an enthusiasm to the subject.”
Many of Sajet’s recent projects have focused on new media and virtual learning. At the Historical Society, Sajet focused on expanding digital projects and online archives. In 2009, she launched the Digital Center for Americana, which has posted 65,000 images of historical letters, documents and artwork online since its creation. At the Portrait Gallery, Sajet says she intends to focus on bolstering the museum’s efforts in the virtual realm.
“I’d like to be able to reach Americans across the country, which includes online programming,” Sajet said. “I intend to go outside of the Beltway and visit as many states as I can. The National Portrait Gallery is a national asset.”
The Portrait Gallery, dedicated to visual histories and renderings of American life, is housed in the Old Patent Office Building, now named the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. It is the third-oldest federal building in Washington. The gallery shares space with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Sajet will oversee the gallery’s $9 million budget and 65 staff members.
During the past several months, the Portrait Gallery has witnessed much transition. Last May, Sajet’s predecessor, Martin Sullivan, stepped down because of health concerns after leading the institution for four years. After Sullivan’s departure, Wendy Wick Reaves, the gallery’s curator of prints and drawings, acted as interim director. Last week, the gallery also announced the departure of longtime curators Frank Goodyear III and Anne Collins Goodyear, a husband-and-wife curatorial duo who have worked at the gallery since 2001. They were named co-directors of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art and will begin their posts at the university’s Brunswick, Maine, campus in June.
Sullivan’s leadership of the Portrait Gallery gained widespread attention during the controversy surrounding its landmark 2010 exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Sullivan defended the exhibition after G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, decided to remove a video by artist David Wojnarowicz depicting ants crawling over a crucifix.
“We spent a lot of time discussing that in the interview, and after looking at how the whole controversy unfolded, I feel [the Smithsonian’s] position now is much different,” Sajet said. “ . . . The Smithsonian has to be part of a dialogue of the important issues of the day, and if it means there’s parts of the community that disagrees, that’s unfortunate.”
She added that she admires the gallery’s most recent exhibitions, including “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter,” which examined stereotypes and facets of Asian American identity.
Kurin said that the nine-member search committee was struck by Sajet’s enthusiasm for American history and how her international experience informs her perspective on American history and identity. Born in Nigeria, Sajet is a citizen of the Netherlands and was educated in Australia and at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College.
“The U.S. has always been a globally connected country, from our discovery to the native world in the Americas and our current global reach,” Kurin said. “She lives that. It is exciting that someone from her background knows as much as she does and brings such enthusiasm.”
“A big part of my job [at the Historical Society] was being able to talk about American identity and what this amazing country has done,” Sajet said. “Americans sometimes forget how much they are observed by other people around the world. I’m looking forward to reminding people of the larger global context. It’s something the Smithsonian values.”