Sullivan to Head Portrait Gallery

Martin Sullivan, praised for his
Martin Sullivan, praised for his "passion." (Susan Wilkinson - Historic St. Mary's City)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

Martin E. Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, has been selected as the new director of the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution announced yesterday.

Sullivan, 63, has worked at the site of Maryland's first capital, which has national historic landmark status, since 1999. Previously Sullivan was director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the New York State Museum in Albany. In 2003, he abruptly resigned as chairman of the State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee because the U.S. forces had not worked out a plan to preserve the antiquities of Iraq.

The Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is a museum of art and history. Its goal is to tell the story of American life through paintings, photographs and sculpture. The museum is housed in the historic Old Patent Office Building, the third-oldest public building in Washington and now called the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. It reopened in 2006 after a six-year renovation. The Portrait Gallery shares the building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In announcing the appointment, Cristi┬┐n Samper, acting secretary of the Smithsonian, pointed to Sullivan's record as a scholar and museum director.

"He brings a passion for reaching new audiences," Samper said. Ned Rifkin, the Smithsonian undersecretary for art, who chaired the search committee, called Sullivan "an understated leader. He is not showy. You immediately get his warmth and solidity. He is one of those people who can manage change without creating turmoil."

Sullivan said in an interview yesterday he was familiar with the work of the Portrait Gallery and has tested its appeal. On New Year's Day 2007, he took his wife, Katherine, a school librarian, and daughter Bethany, a paralegal, to the Gallery Place neighborhood for brunch. Then they went to the Reynolds Center. "They were knocked out. And I thought this is a pretty neat experience and this is what museums should be doing," he said.

A few months later a search firm called about the director job. "I thought this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Sullivan, who teaches at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Born in Troy, N.Y., he majored in history at Siena College in nearby Loudonville, and earned master's and doctoral degrees in history from Notre Dame.

Right now, he wants to continue the collaboration with other Smithsonian museums, expand the Portrait Gallery's Web site and beef up the electronic information in the galleries. He has an idea for an exhibition using portraits to tell about "the British history of dealing with indigenous people." And he loved the recent prank of putting comedian Stephen Colbert's portrait by the museum's men's room, an addition that is on display until March 2 and has drawn enormous crowds. "No harm in that," Sullivan said.

During his tenure heading the St. Mary's commission, Sullivan said he helped raise $30 million, much from the state government, to do reconstruction and archaeology. "Unlike Williamsburg and Jamestown, St. Mary's is not on the way to anywhere else. And there is not a whole lot of corporate money," he said. Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said Sullivan "has basically turned the whole operation around" in his nine years on the job, and said the Portrait Gallery "hit a home run" in choosing him.

In Phoenix, Sullivan oversaw a successful $25 million capital campaign and an expansion of the Heard that doubled its size.

Sullivan held that job, like the one in St. Mary's City, for nine years.

"Yes, it's a pattern. I am committed as long as they have me and as long as I can do it."

Sullivan, appointed to his State Department post by President Bill Clinton, worked as chairman of the cultural property committee for eight years and was serving on an expired term when he quit. "Those of us on the committee knew about the fragility at the archeological sites and the national library and museum [in Iraq]. When the looting occurred, it struck me that was preventable," Sullivan said. "This wasn't a criticism of the president, but with all the effort that went into planning, this was a terrible lapse."

Sullivan will replace Marc Pachter, who had run the Portrait Gallery since 2000. Pachter resigned to write about American cultural history.

Though Samper has been acting secretary of the Smithsonian for only about 10 months, he has made a number of key hires. He named Kevin Gover head of the National Museum of the American Indian and appointed two assistant secretaries to the administrative side of the institution. Samper is expected to appoint a new director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the coming weeks. A permanent secretary is expected to be appointed in March. Samper is a candidate for the job.

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