Kim Sajet: They didn’t see nationality or gender as a barrier to leading this museum

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Interview by Molly O'Brien

Kim Sajet has a very important job. She is in charge of 18,000 people, arguably some of the most important in American history. George Washington, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, just to name a few.

Former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle are the two most recent additions of Important People to fall under her care.  

Kim is the director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where all these faces and more – living and dead – are housed.

If there is a way directors of national portrait galleries are meant to sound, Kim does not embody it. She speaks quickly and passionately (an unmistakably Australian trait) but with no-beat-missed intelligence. For someone whose schedule is presumably terrifying, she is extremely generous with her stories and the time she takes to tell them.

Kim’s journey to the lofty heights of the art world can be attributed almost exclusively to her grit and passion for her work. She began her US experience in Philadelphia in 1998, relocating from Melbourne, where she headed the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery and Monash Gallery of Art.

Unable to work in her first few years due to visa constraints, Kim instead began to volunteer, unpaid, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, helping to establish their long-distance education program. She did this while she paid someone to look after her children; a paradox not lost on her.

When she eventually was able to acquire working entitlements, she found employment within three days. This is a lesson she tries to impart to interns and young people: make yourself indispensable.

Kim recently experienced an extraordinary career highlight when she unveiled the portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama to an intimate crowd at the museum. Following this, attendance immediately increased 300% and has now settled at around 150% higher, ensuring that the museum will is guaranteed to exceed its usual 1.3 million annual visitations. She calls it the “Obama effect”.

While the Obama’s certainly may have helped, it’s no wonder the attendance of the National Portrait Gallery has increased. It has the world’s most ardent art cheerleader at its helm.

 Johnnetta Cole, Kim Sajet, Oprah Winfrey & Maya Angelou

Johnnetta Cole, Kim Sajet, Oprah Winfrey & Maya Angelou

ON HER CONTRIBUTIONS AS DIRECTOR…

Appointed as director in 2013 following a rigorous interview process, Kim has taken a hands-on approach to implementing her innovative ideas to improve the museum – one might consider a trademark of Australian entrepreneurialism. One example: The National Portrait Gallery is the first Smithsonian to have a dance company in residence. The Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company has done six performances to date inspired by exhibitions at the gallery, something Kim believes helps bring the art and ideas to life.

“I really do believe, whether it’s poetry, music, performance or performance art, we should involve as many other artistic disciplines as possible to heighten the emotional connection,” she said. " How people express themselves, and in turn receive stimuli isn't compartmentalised, and a museum – especially one that deals with people—needs to echo the wonderfully creative state that is the human condition."

Another improvement, attributed directly to Kim’s leadership, is the museum’s increased inclusivity and accessibility.

“We’ve set ourselves the goal to be completely bilingual (English and Spanish) by 2019 which we’re already well underway to achieving; adding Braille for all major exhibitions as well as sign language tours and programs for people of differing abilities. Having said that, I don't believe in separating-out groups of people unless there is a cogent reason. For example, while we do offer a small, intimate program for families whose children fall within the autism spectrum before the museum opens, we also offer slow looking tours for the visually impaired that are open to anyone. They are very popular because they ask people to slow down and really think about the power of art to transform lives."

ON THE ROLE OF THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY IN 2018…

Opening its doors in 1968, the National Portrait Gallery will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. 1968, notoriously known as one of the worst years America has seen, with the assassination of both Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, was a time where America was trying to reestablish the direction of the democratic dream.

Many of the issues America was facing in the sixties are still at the forefront of modern social agendas – gun control, racial tensions, the feminist movement, to name just a few. While America has seen improvement throughout the decades since, the country at large is still very much an ongoing project, and perhaps forever will be. Kim and her team recognise the responsibility they have to tell the stories of America’s history through a contemporary lens.

“We want to spend this anniversary year looking at what is the role of the portrait in American history,” she said. “We’re different from the UK model where the foundation of leadership derived from the royal family and inherited wealth. The American 'origin story' was essentially about self-determination and merit, and the government, most notably the Presidents, were democratically elected into office. And yet we also know that in America's striving for 'exceptionalism' the rights of Native American people were ignored and many others either because of their gender, race, religion or physical disabilities were excluded from the national narrative. This story echoed traditional portraiture which favoured those who could vote: white men who owned land. I think the goal of the National Portrait Gallery today is to ask ourselves 'how do we represent the whole country and grapple with the discriminations of the past?' Given that we can't turn back the clock, how do we talk about those left out of the stories, and why?”

ON WHY PORTRAITS ARE SO ALLURING…

The art world, at times, can be terribly intimidating. Some genres of art may require background knowledge to fully understand or appreciate, such as abstract impressionism or minimalism,  but portraits, for the most part, are straightforward; what-you-see-is-what-you-get. You could say portraits are the Australians of the art world.  

Kim observes that from the moment you are born the first thing in life you’ll come into contact with is another person - your mother, your father or caregiver’s face, voice and touch. Then, as humans, we go through life working out how we compare to, and present ourselves to others. Human nature is fundamentally to be social and one of the worst forms of punishment is to be put in solitary confinement.

“We’ve worked hard for the Portrait Gallery to be very accessible, to be an extension of what we do every day of our lives, which is to be with others. There’s another person in front of you and you’re in front of them. There’s a relationship happening there immediately.”

The challenge then, for Kim, is to make a visit to the National Portrait Gallery more than a merely two-dimensional experience. She hopes for visitors to peer into a window of another person’s life, and in turn, experience a mirror back to oneself. She hopes to develop a sense of empathy for others and evoke questions such as: What was that person thinking, at that point in time? What would I have done in that situation? Why did Abraham Lincoln decide to abolish slavery? What drove Amelia Earhart to become the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean? What must it have been like for Rosa Parks to be on that bus?

She explains, “If we do our job right, it’s about recognising that everyone has both flaws and attributes, and it’s what you do with those in the span of a lifetime. You come into this life with nothing, and you leave this life with nothing – it’s what you do in the middle that counts. And it’s certainly what you do in the middle that gets you into the National Portrait Gallery.”

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ON THE OBAMA PORTRAITS…

On the 12th of February 2018, Kim unveiled the highly-anticipated Obama portraits, painted by New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore-based painter Amy Sherald. It was the very first time the presidential portraits were painted by African Americans, who were each invited to speak at the unveiling.

“The event itself was extraordinary,” Kim explained. “People keep asking me why there is such strong interest in the Obamas. Is it out of affection for their achievements whilst in office? Is it because of how unique the portraits are as contemporary works of art and the compelling stories of the two artists who painted them? I think it is all of the above, but there is also an "X-factor" which involves people looking for moments to come together as a community. The Obama portraits, and indeed the National Portrait Gallery, bring together dialogue, engagement, inclusivity, and creativity. A tangible reflection of the motto on the Great Seal of America: E Pluribus Unum, Out of Many, One.”

ON BEING AUSTRALIAN…

When first appointed, Kim was both pleased that she became the first female director, and amazed that the Smithsonian would contemplate a Nigerian-born, Dutch-Australian to run such an extraordinary institution.

“I think it’s great they didn’t see nationality or gender as a barrier to leading this museum. It says a lot about the ethos of believing in individual merit that pervades America and the Smithsonian as a whole. Unlike other parts of the world, the United States still allows someone who has a different background and perspective into their tent. They value my contribution as an 'inside outsider,' and in return, I have a tremendous sense of respect, loyalty, and love for the country. It makes me want to work extra-hard on behalf of all Americans" she said.

“I believe that Australians have a lot to offer the world. We tend to be very pragmatic in wanting to get a job done. We generally like other people and want to put them at ease, hear their ideas, respect different points of view, and have a sense of fun. We don't take ourselves too seriously. We’re also very honest, sometimes to our detriment. I’ve learnt to maybe not say the very first thing that comes into my head. There is a higher 'politeness norm' in America and sometimes people can't tell if you are joking and can get offended. I'd say overall Australians don't like to waste time; we are very "can-do." To be natural problem-solvers and team-builders has held us in good stead.”

ON LIVING IN WASHINGTON DC…

Kim is in awe of the smart, interesting and driven people from all corners of the world who come to Washington DC. While reeling off career highlights, she casually mentions some prolific figures she has met – Oprah Winfrey, Madeleine Albright, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Maya Angelou, Maya Lin, Hank Aaron, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jeff Bezos (as if the Obamas weren’t enough).

“There’s always a certain excitement here – and it constantly readjusts as administrations change; a new President and First Lady take up residence in the White House, elections bring new politicians, members of the judiciary, embassies from the around the globe set up diplomatic relations. American leaders from every field spanning science, business, technology, the arts, etc come at some point to Washington DC, and every major world leader comes to the Capitol when they can. Of course, they come to the National Portrait Gallery as part of their visit. It’s the greatest job in the world, in one of the greatest cities.”