Coronavirus Report

Coronavirus Report: The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews Kim Sajet

The Hill’s Steve Clemons interviews the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Kim Sajet

Steve Clemons: Kim, great to see you and thanks very much for joining us. You know, I just revealed, that I like to go hang out in the Kogod Court and write some of my articles for The Hill there. But just give me a quick picture of how it is to go from being the director of one of the world’s great museum and clearly one of America’s greatest museums, with tons of folks coming in, to now having that big piece of real estate and you’re mostly online.

Kim Sajet: Right. The world is our oyster, right. We’re the only National Portrait Gallery of America, but now I’ve considered everybody who could get online as part of our audience. And you’re right, we’ve created all these fantastic ways to still connect with us. So, you can go through eight different exhibitions online, and we started creating sort of special bespoke programs such as the story time for children that are 11 o’clock on Wednesday mornings, Eastern Standard Time. On Fridays, you can meet a real artist who teaches you how to make portraits; that’s also at 11 o’clock, and then all sorts of different ways of connecting with us from coloring books around portraits and educational materials. Because, as you know, there are a lot of people at home becoming teachers and teaching kids at home and setting up classrooms in their kitchens and living rooms.


Clemons: Well, that’s something I hadn’t thought about before because I do know a lot of people with their children have all of a sudden either online education or in-home schooling and all of that going on. How are you interacting with these desperate parents trying to get resources for their children?

Sajet: Look, honestly, the best way to start is to get on to the website. So, that’s But also, as we’re part of the Smithsonian, you can get on to the Smithsonian website, and there’s all sorts of materials there for stay-at-home teacher parents. And so, as I said there are lessons in history but also in math, in natural history, in science. In our case, of course, it’s about biography, and the people who have made a difference, like the America’s presidents. So, there’s a lot of information, and increasingly we have a lot of information up in Spanish as well. And we have programs up there in sign language for people who are also needing different ways to communicate.


Clemons: One of the things I love about the portrait gallery is that I love the Gallery of the Presidents that we have all been seeing since we were kids, and the latest with the Obamas and others that have been there. But there are portraits of all different dimensions of American society, leaders, every racial group in society, those that have been neglected historically for various reasons that you’ve brought back into the mainstream. And sometimes appearing in that gallery is also an important political statement on inclusion and where we’re going. I’d just like to get in your mind a little bit and understand that when we look back on this time of portraits of people who made a difference, you know, heroes in the country. How is that likely to take shape? You know, how is a Tony Fauci going to be depicted? How in this digital age are you going to depict digitally? Where does that go?

Sajet: Yeah, right. I mean, part of the challenge is to live up to the motto on the great seal of America, right ,“E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one. But we know traditionally that not everyone got to have their portrait taken because it was a very elite art form. And of course, not everyone got to become a president or a governor or, you know, a major entity in American history. So, the criteria that men and women who have made an impact on America’s history and culture and if we looked at today I mean, we do have Dr. Anthony Fauci in the collection as part of a group portrait that was done a couple of years ago. It’s a video piece, actually. But we’re looking for a better one now of him alone. But then, of course, you know, people like José Andrés and we have the Gateses — who, as we know, have been very big supporters right now trying to find a vaccine for COVID-19 — have been in the collection for a while. But, also adding scientists and then saying, do we have women scientists? So, recently we brought in Frances Arnold, who won the Nobel last year for biochemical engineering.


Clemons: You know, one of the other things I’ve done, and this may not be within the realm of the Portrait Gallery per se, but I just read a book called “The 10 Caesars” or “10 Caesars” by Barry Strauss. And in it he tells a little bit about one of the debilitating issues for Rome, in that time, the Roman Empire, was a virus that hit in the third century and it took 15 years to sort of burn out. When you go back and look at the history of viruses — and, of course, there’s a lot of reference to the one that happened about 100 years ago in this country in 1918. How did those moments of pandemics affect the way people think about world? And how has it affected art?

Sajet: I think particularly, if I could take the portraits, so I think we do look to people who have made a change. We also look to people who have passed as remembrances. One of things I think is a fascinating period is actually the Civil War, which is the first time you actually get readily available photographs that you could carry around. They were called carte de visite. You could have a camera that would take 4 or 8 or 12 pictures, and many of the men who died on the battlefield were found with those little photographs in their coat pockets, and their families knew that they had actually died with them being thought of. So, I think pandemics and any major disasters we also think about the people who made a difference in our lives. And we realized at the end of the day we’re more alike than we are different, and that what matters is communication, empathy, community, sharing, being part of the solution, not the problem.


Clemons: And one of the other things I was thinking about the Portrait Gallery is how political art is, and you are at the middle of a lot of knots, a lot of tug of wars, and I want to say drag you through them again. But you are in a sense a manifestation of the moment, a manifestation of the tensions of the moment, and I’d like you to take your curator’s hat off for a moment and say, what advice do you have for governors? And for those who are sitting in their own political tug of war between contending sides? How do you hear both sides? How do you get it right and get to an equilibrium that is — that may not be the very best, but is the best you can get?

Sajet: Listen, I always say there’s no moral test to be in the Portrait Gallery. No one is perfect, right? We’re not a hall of heroes. We all make mistakes, and we will do good things. What gets you into the portrait galleries is the summation of a life. When the ledger is actually tallied up at the end of it, have you really changed America? And ideally, for the better. I mean, we also have people who weren’t so great, like John Wilkes Booth who killed Lincoln. And so, I would say, look at the long game. But as you journey along the way, you know, reach out to others and have empathy and have open communication because they’re the people that we can see who have been in the Portrait Gallery, who really were able to take the resources that they had and make them work for them even in the most difficult circumstances.


Clemons: Can you give us a quick glimpse, Kim, of some of your — I mean, I don’t call them best because I know you love all your children, but some of the virtual tours that you have, what you’ve designed for the great, broad global public to experience at your museum?

Sajet: Well, you can certainly go through the America’s presidents. But I think one of my most favorite exhibitions right now is our portrait competition, which happens every three years, and it is a call for entries around the country. So, this time we had 2,700 entrants, we picked 46 artists, and I guess maybe it was fortuitous, but the winning entry is a video piece by an artist called Hugo Crosthwaite that you can actually watch I would argue just as well, if not better, at home, because you don’t have all the background noise of visitors in the galleries. If you have a good computer and a pretty good audio system, it’s a really great portrait of a woman who is on a bus crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.


Clemons: One of the other things, and I’m sorry to get so practical, you know, and into the grit of all of this, you know, just in reference, I had José Andrés on The Coronavirus Report recently and also interviewed Tom Colicchio, and both of them were putting out playbooks on how to reopen, how to think about it, what are the health guardrails to getting back to something like we used to have? It’s going to be different, but getting back. Are you thinking at all about putting health guardrails together or a playbook together for returning to something that’s a hybrid of a virtual experience and an in-person experience at the Portrait Gallery?

Sajet: You know, we are part of the Smithsonian. So, we’re working with all our siblings to work out what that looks like. You know, there are 19 museums and a National Zoo and then all the research centers. So, whatever we do, we’re going to do in coordination, and likely it will be a phase project as we sort of think about how we open. But, to your point about, you know, I do think that we’ve added a couple of tools to the toolbox now. For example, we’ve done one fabulous program with some of our donors where we did a little sort of walk through an exhibition that we’re planning with the curator and people were fascinated. They loved it. We have another one actually coming up tomorrow night. And we realized that we should be doing this more often because we are the National Portrait Gallery, and not everyone can come from around the country. And they can still have a relationship with us and learn something and be engaged. So, I do think that we’re going to be going into this hybrid model and even more, you know — one of my biggest dreams, actually, is to set up what I call portrait productions. I would love to have a full-time videographer and you know a person who does audio and do lot smaller sort of communications, much as I think, like the BBC has done in the past. I think the way they’ve changed their model is really kind of fascinating. As you know, I have a podcast. We’re in the second season. We’re now doubling our listenership to that. And I want more of that. So, we need to be thinking about the on-site experience, but we more and more need to be thinking about the online experience. Now, the online experience has to be different, and it has to be additive, you know. You can’t replace what it’s like to look at a real work of art, but you can do it in a very different and engaging way.


Clemons: I think in our last minute, Kim, I’m gonna be unfair to you. I’m gonna ask to put you on the spot again. I remember just a wonderful set of events that you had at the Portrait Gallery where you’d bring in well-known entertainers, or film directors, or talk show hosts, and they would take a piece of art from the gallery — I remember one subject was once a Cy Twombly painting that was there — and then basically give a public talk and even a show, if you will, around that piece of art. So, I want to ask you to pick your favorite piece of art, your most meaningful piece of art during this time of coronavirus. What moves Kim Sajet?

Sajet: We have a podcast that’s coming up of Sojourner Truth, and it’s a photograph of her. What I had not realized until we had talked to our senior historian, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, is that in her lap she’s holding knitting, but she’s actually made the yarn look like the map of the United States. So, here was a woman who was once enslaved, who couldn’t read or write, but she controlled her own image and she loved America dearly. And I think that, to me, is, it’s a portrait of resilience and hope and ingenuity, and it’s just sort of a fascinating story. So, that’s the one I’m in love with right now. But ask me in two hours and I’ll have a different portrait.


Clemons: I’m gonna tag onto my last question with one last question: How do you think COVID is going to be depicted in the arts?

Sajet: I think there’s already a lot coming up, but I think what I’m really impressed with is just sort of this focus on families, the people around us, maybe less about celebrity in some way and more about those who we’ve spent a lot of time with. But also the people on the front lines, right? The doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, the people stocking our shelves. I mean, they’re the heroes really of this whole situation. And I think we’re going to see more of their portraits, certainly in the next portrait competition when that comes out.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus Coronavirus Report Kim Sajet

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