More Than Meets the Eye

by Catherine Trifiletti

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, helmed by director Kim Sajet highlights lesser- known faces ahead of its 50th anniversary.

Thousands of portraits line the walls of Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, from a painting of Katy Perry donning a cupcake outfit by Will Cotton, to the earliest known photograph of a president – a recently acquired image of John Quincy Adams by Philip Haas.The mere range of portraits indicates that the museum is accomplishing its broad goal of showcasing the American experience through individuals who have spurred the country’s progress. But museum director Kim Sajet wants visitors to dig deeper as she has done over a five year tenure helming the gallery, and ask: “What does American achievement really mean? Who got to make the decisions and who didn’t?”

It is the absence of faces in the nation’s only dedicated portrait gallery that Sajet seeks to access. It’s about those who may have otherwise been left out of the American narrative up to this point, she says, calling it the “presence of absence.” Portraiture is, at its very core,“an elitist art form,” Sajet explains, notably listing “Men of Progress” by Christian Schussele as one of her favorite pieces in the museum because of the moment in time it represents. It pictures 19 variety of unique programs scheduled including noteworthy male inventors, including Charles Goodyear and Samuel Colt, standing in a fictitious setting. Although there were many women with inventions during that time, Sajet notes, they weren’t included. A walk from early galleries through newer ones reflects the nation’s progress, highlighting America’s pursuit of identity along the way. The current exhibition “The Sweat of their Face,” which chronicles and celebrates portraits of American laborers, is just one example of the gallery’s evolution.

In addition to an impressive resume, including a stint at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Nigerian- born Sajet has brought a global perspective to the institution, trying to marry America’s coolness — as she perceived it growing up internationally — with its history. She has spearheaded diversity initiatives including the museum’s transition into a wholly bilingual space for the benefit of Spanish speaking visitors.They are also in the process of adding accessible materials, including Braille, to portrait descriptions. As the museum approaches its 50th anniversary, Sajet and her team have an exhibit that explores the art of silhouettes opening next year called “Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now.”

Barack and Michelle Obama’s portraits, commissioned respectively by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, will be unveiled early next year. The former president’s likeness will take up permanent residence in the newly updated “America’s Presidents” gallery while the former first lady’s portrait will be on the ground floor for the first year.

Sajet hopes to move the needle forward and continue to reshape the narrative about what, and more specifically who, constitutes American progress. She does not take her role or the gallery’s lightly especially in a time of such divisiveness, where once again America seems to be battling an identity crisis.“I do feel like we are right at the center of these very critical conversations and we want to be respectful, we want to be inclusive, we want to be innovative,” Sajet says. “You want to break down those barriers, you want to have some fun.”

This article appeared in the December issue of Washington Life Magazine.

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