Smithsonian picks new US Portrait Gallery chief

February 5, 2013 - 2:30 PM
Portrait Gallery Director

This undated handout photo provided by the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery shows the gallery's new director Kim Sajet. Sajet, the president and CEO of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, is being named to the post Tuesday to oversee a collection that includes famous images of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and other prominent figures in American history. (AP Photo/W Concannon, National Portrait Gallery)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Smithsonian Institution named a leading Philadelphia museum executive and art historian to be the next director of the National Portrait Gallery on Tuesday.

Kim Sajet (Sayet), the president and CEO of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, will join the Smithsonian beginning April 1. She will oversee a collection of 21,000 objects, including such famous images as Alexander Gardner's "cracked plate" photograph of Abraham Lincoln and Gilbert Stuart's "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington, among others.

Sajet, 47, said the Portrait Gallery is a young museum, established by Congress in 1962, but is special because people connect with people and their stories in its exhibits.

"I think there's a tremendous desire nationally ... to touch base with the people who have contributed so much to America's history and made it what it is today," she said.

The Portrait Gallery shares a historic building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Together they drew about 1 million visitors in 2012. The gallery's collection includes portraits of every president as well as influential Americans ranging from sports stars and entertainers to poets and civil rights leaders.

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough noted Sajet's art expertise and fundraising skills in announcing her appointment. Sajet raised $15 million over six years at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and was previously responsible for raising millions more at other Philadelphia institutions.

Sajet said the Portrait Gallery has potential to grow online. In Pennsylvania, she launched an effort to digitize more than 65,000 images to present online and built a social media program.

"I think that we need to be thinking about curating our experiences on the net as closely as we're curating our exhibits," she said. "I'd like to see the National Portrait Gallery have a footprint that is far outside of the Washington beltway, that really does have a national presence."

She succeeds Martin Sullivan, who stepped down last year after four years as director.

In Philadelphia, Sajet previously was deputy director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the nation's oldest art museum and school. She played a lead role in the purchase of Thomas Eakins' painting "The Gross Clinic" for a record $68 million to keep the artwork from leaving the city. She also was an executive at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and was a curator and director at two Australian art museums.

Sajet is the daughter of Dutch immigrants. She was born in Nigeria, raised in Australia and is a citizen of the Netherlands. She said she maintains her Dutch citizenship to help care for a disabled brother there.

"Regardless, I think I've spent close to the last two decades thinking about American identity," she said. The Smithsonian has an opportunity, she said, to "broaden understanding of world cultures and then put into that context what it means to be an American."

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National Portrait Gallery: http://www.npg.si.edu/

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