Hard to miss with her short platinum hair, Australian accent and throaty laugh, National Portrait Gallery Director Kim Sajet is bringing attention — not to mention money and crowds — to the 47-year-old Smithsonian museum, where she has unleashed a series of experimental projects, boosted the board’s membership and broadened the definition of portrait.
“I’m not good at safe,” Sajet, 50, said during a recent conversation in her office. “I’m very much about experimentation. I came in and said, ‘You know, nothing is a sacred cow. Let’s look at breaking down the hierarchies, experimenting and piloting things.’ ”
The list of early accomplishments is long and varied. In her first two years, Sajet commissioned artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada to create a six-acre landscape portrait on the Mall, created a show on artist and educator Dolores Huerta — marking the first time a Latina was featured in the long-running “One Life” series — and created a multimedia exhibit focused on celebrity. Next month, she will host the museum’s first American Portrait Gala, celebrating five individuals whose portraits are in the collection.
“I think bigger than I ever did before,” Sajet said. “The big gesture is important. The vision thing, right? I worry less about the money. If I have a good idea, I think people will join me. So far that’s proven true.”
A new performance art series, “Identify,” is the latest example of her different approach. The gallery has commissioned five artists — Wilmer Wilson, Martha McDonald, James Luna, J.J. McCracken and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons — to create site-specific works for the gallery’s Great Hall. Sajet has asked the artists to examine issues of race and gender as well as their personal and family histories to present a new kind of active portrait through music, movement and monologue.
The series also provides Sajet with a way to introduce multicultural perspectives and ideas into a historical museum that professes to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape its history and culture.
“Where are all the women and African Americans?” Sajet asked, acknowledging the criticism she hears. “We can’t correct the ills of history. Women and men and women of color — their portraits weren’t taken. How are we going to show the presence of absence?”
Born in Nigeria and raised in Australia, Sajet has worked in the United States for 20 years. Prior to the Portrait Gallery, she served as president and chief executive of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for six years and was senior vice president and deputy director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before that. She also worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at museums in Australia.
She has focused on making the Portrait Gallery more inclusive by acquiring works representing diverse artists and subjects and by incorporating Spanish into the overall communications strategy. She has hired three curators and has recruited 13 members of the museum’s governing body.
Commissioner Amy Meadows describes Sajet as a cheerleader for the museum whose bold vision is reinventing a place many wrongly think is focused only on dead white men.
“She respects curators and understands that a director must stay out of their way,” Meadows said.
To support her new ideas, Sajet raised $4.7 million in donations this year, almost double the $2.5 million raised in 2013, when she arrived. The gallery’s annual budget is $9 million, and visitors top 1 million.
Her tenure has been marked by a few controversies. There was a dust-up when the artist who painted the portrait of Bill Clinton said he included a visual reference to Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, and there have been protests over the display of a bust of Margaret Sanger, considered the founder of Planned Parenthood. Last week, Texas Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep Louie Gohmert sent a letter to Sajet calling for the removal of the bust of Sanger, who was allied with the eugenics movement that supported the use of contraceptives to control the population of minorities. Two dozen members of Congress signed the appeal.
Sajet responded by noting that the museum isn’t a Hall of Fame but a space to showcase lives both inspirational and complicated. “Sanger . . . is included in the museum’s collection not in tribute to all her beliefs, many of which are now discredited, but because of her leading role in early efforts to distribute information about birth control and medical information to disadvantaged women,” she said.
Sajet doesn’t shy away from these disputes. “Americans do believe the Smithsonian is their museum, and they treat it as theirs. When something goes up, people petition us. We get letters. We are constantly criticized in a way that I’ve never experienced before,” she said. “We should be willing to take on dialogue.”
She’s already bracing for the reaction to an exhibition planned for 2017 that will feature post-9/11 portraits of soldiers by contemporary artists, and she’s begun to think about how the museum exhibits the presidential portraits. The prized Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, one of the centerpieces of the “America’s Presidents” exhibition is coming out of the show in February for conservation. This gives her the perfect opportunity to reexamine the presidents gallery, which she hopes to do for its 50th anniversary in 2018.
“We’re going to invite the public to help us, we’re going to try a couple of different label formats, trialing some kind of app or touch screens, to give people a sense of being part of what we’re doing,” she said. “I would love to put the presidents into the context of global history.”