What once was a sleepy, little-known museum on the tourist map has transformed into one of the must-see stops in the nation’s capital — thanks to clever rebranding and the support of A-list celebrities.
“When I walked in the door, there were still a lot of people who didn’t realize we had a National Portrait Gallery in the United States,” says Director Kim Sajet, who came to the gallery in 2013. “If you knew it was there, there was this perception that the portrait gallery was like a nice, comfy sofa: Everyone liked it. It was predictable; it was in Washington and it was part of the Smithsonian.”
And, not to put too fine a point on it, most people thought it was kind of boring. So Sajet decided to throw a high-profile gala, if only to proclaim that the gallery was about more than portraits of dead white guys.
Turns out the portrait gallery was sitting on an untapped gold mine of contemporary art, with images of beloved, living icons already in the collection. To explore gender, class and diversity in portraiture, the gallery mounted exhibits on the suffrage movement in the United States, misrepresentation of minorities in art, and women of the Civil War. In 2017, it made international headlines when it unveiled portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama.
Now that diversity is reflected in real life at the gala. This year’s event, which will raise more than $2 million, was sold out weeks ago thanks to its boldface names — which also include Indra Nooyi, Frances Arnold, James Corden, Clive Davis and Earth, Wind & Fire.
As the saying goes, it’s not a real party until something gets broken — in this case, stereotypes. The gala’s message is a glamorous, black-tie version of the gallery’s redefined mission: This is the portrait of America. All of America.
Washington’s gallery, which opened in 1968, was modeled after London’s with its rows and rows of kings, queens and other bewigged aristocrats. The paintings of presidents and first ladies (the only people automatically admitted into the national collection) have always been a crowd favorite, but Sajet was determined to broaden the mandate.
“It wasn’t until 2001 we started collecting living people,” she explains. “So you had to be dead — like really, really dead. At least 10 years.” And she was deeply concerned about the lack of diversity: Most of the portraits were white men; only 23 percent of the collection portrayed women, and there were very few works featuring minorities.
“Portraiture has always been a very elitist art form,” she says. “Forget about people of color, and if you were below a certain economic stature, you were never going to get a portrait.”
Who gets in now? “Men and women who’ve made an impact or contribution to America, good and bad,” says Sajet. “There’s no moral test to be in the portrait gallery or no one would be there.”
The gallery has about 23,000 portraits in its permanent collection and adds 150 to 200 per year; 500 to 600 works are on public display at any given time. Historians consider new names and then work with gallery board members to select who should be included and commission their portraits. The process can take a year, more if the sitter and artist take a long time to complete a work.
It’s a subjective process, which leads to the inevitable debates about who deserves a place in the collection. Officially, looks, money or fame are not enough to be selected; the person needs to have moved the needle in some significant way. The gallery always gets suggestions, of course, but not everyone — even people who are clearly qualified for inclusion — wants to be captured for posterity. Some people are skeptical, says Sajet, and see the entire enterprise as a vanity project.
So she’s found herself explaining why it’s important to tell their stories. “I keep saying to them, ‘It’s really not about you, quite frankly.’ Representation matters.”
That argument got easier after the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were unveiled in February 2018. The record-breaking crowds surprised even the museum staff, who expected that the paintings would be popular — but not that they would put the gallery on the international map.
The unveilings completed a three-year process that started in 2015 when the first couple and the gallery began looking at possible artists for their portraits and continues to this day as a must-see for tourists and locals. They come for the Obamas — and often stay for hours exploring the faces of people they never heard of.
Presidential portraits are always unveiled after leaving office. The gallery will commission an official portrait of President Trump after he leaves the White House. Meanwhile, a 1989 photograph of the then-businessman, donated in 2011 by Bill and Sally Wittliff and exhibited in 2017, is part of the gallery’s rotating collection.
Before the Obama portraits, however, the gallery had a hard time getting attention or donors. Early in her tenure, Sajet approached Catherine and Wayne Reynolds for a contribution. Instead of writing a one-time check, the Washington philanthropists suggested trying a fundraising gala instead.
“The gallery had all the ingredients for success: an incredible facility, an incredible collection and a terrific new director,” says Wayne Reynolds. “All it needed was to be ignited so people would understand what was there.”
That dovetailed with Sajet’s desire for a “wow” event to highlight the gallery’s message and fund an endowment for portraits of living Americans by contemporary artists. (The federal government pays the operational costs of the museum, but private donations fund new work and exhibitions.)
But not everyone was thrilled with the idea.
“Doesn’t Washington already have some really spectacular galas?” asked Joe Ujobai, chief executive of a financial technology firm and chair of the gallery’s commission. “Do we really want to compete with that? Here we go again, trying to twist the arms of our friends to write big checks and get dressed up on a Sunday night.”
When it was clear there was enough support to move forward, Ujobai jokingly asked: “If I pay double, does that mean I don’t have to come?” (Spoiler: He came, he saw, he was won over.)
The trick, of course, was coming up with a way to make this gala both distinctive and not another rubber-chicken extravaganza.
The gallery created the Portrait of a Nation Prize and decided to give it to five people who were already in the gallery’s collection. For the first gala in 2015, Sajet showcased a diverse group of men and women from the arts, science and sports world: baseball legend Hank Aaron, fashion designer Carolina Herrera, artist Maya Lin, Medal of Honor recipient Cpl. Kyle Carpenter and singer Aretha Franklin, a Reynolds family friend who agreed to give a mini-concert for the audience.
The twist was asking each honoree to select who they wanted to present their award, and so the evening’s lineup included Rep. John Lewis, director Lee Daniels, architect David Adjaye, former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“You need to keep this at a level so people who are being inducted are proud to be a part of it,” Wayne Reynolds told Sajet. “When the ovation for the presenter is as great as the person receiving the award, you know you’ve done a good job.”
The inaugural gala raised $1.7 million; 60 percent of the 500 guests were new donors to the gallery. Early on, the decision was to host the gala every two years, both because of the amount of planning that goes into the night and the belief that it’s easier to hit up donors for large contributions every other year.
The 2017 gala honored former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, actress Rita Moreno, filmmaker Spike Lee, choreographer Bill Jones and HIV researcher David Ho. The evening is largely unscripted, so the interactions between the honorees and presenters can be unexpectedly charming.
Actor Robert Redford agreed to present Albright’s award. When he came onstage, she told him, “I’ve been in love with you forever.”
“You’re pretty great yourself,” he answered. And then she planted a big kiss on his cheek — and Redford turned bright red.
Then there was the back and forth between Lee and his presenter, NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing. “Spike flipped the script and started honoring Patrick as his mentor,” says Ujobai. “They were up there telling stories about each other. It was like the portraits coming to life.”
But the unexpected star of that night was Ho, who had the audience in tears talking about his work to eradicate AIDS. “People come for the glitz,” says Sajet, “but everyone, even today, talks about David Ho.”
This year’s fundraiser is the largest for the gallery, thanks to the partnership of national gala chair Randi Charno Levine and Washington co-chairs Susanna Quinn and Kristin Cecchi. The event will host 750 people, with individual tickets starting at $2,500 and corporate sponsorships at $100,000. It was an easy sell: a nonpartisan celebration of American history, achievement and diversity.
A few years ago, a friend of Sajet’s had a suggestion for the collection: “You should think about Frances Arnold because she’s going to win a Nobel one day.” The gallery agreed and a portrait of the scientist was commissioned. Last year, she won the Nobel Prize in chemistry — and is also one of Sunday’s honorees, along with Bezos, Miranda, Nooyi, Wintour and Earth, Wind & Fire.
“This year’s overachiever is going to Frances Arnold,” predicts Levine. “She’s going to steal the night.”