According to Kim Sajet, director of the Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery, it has been suggested that in today’s surveillance culture, anonymity is impossible. Just as every person’s face—like DNA or a thumbprint—is unique, portraiture makes everyone traceable. Sajet was invited by President Shirley Ann Jackson to speak to members of the campus and local community Feb. 15. She delivered a lecture titled “Make I Contact. Portraiture & (Me)mory.” The lecture was co-sponsored by the Office of the President and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.
“As vice chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, I have had the opportunity to interact many times with Director Sajet,” said President Jackson. “Most recently, we have been serving together on the Smithsonian Institution Strategic Planning Committee, where we have been tasked with assembling a plan that will shape the Smithsonian Institution into the future. This is a significant undertaking—the Smithsonian is, after all, the largest museum and research complex in the world.
“Director Sajet is not only a superb museum manager, she also is a scholar and a curator who is passionate about both art and history—and the ways that the Smithsonian can use art to teach us about our nation, and ourselves,” President Jackson said. “We are so delighted to welcome her to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where we educate our students to think deeply about the connections between the arts, and science, and engineering, through a curriculum-wide initiative we call Art_X.”
Sajet, who joined the gallery in April 2013, oversees a staff of 65 with an annual federal budget of about $9 million (fiscal year 2013) and a collection of about 21,000 objects. The mission of the National Portrait Gallery is to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development, and culture. The gallery was authorized and founded by Congress in 1962 with the mission to acquire and display portraits of “men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States.”
Today, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery continues to narrate the multifaceted and ever-changing story of America through the individuals who have shaped its culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts, and new media, the Portrait Gallery presents poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives form our national identity. Over the years the collections, which were initially restricted to paintings, prints, drawings, and engravings, have grown to over 22,000 items in all media, from daguerreotypes to digital.
In addition to 20 years of arts management experience, she has written a number of scholarly publications, curated permanent-collection and touring exhibitions, and spoken at academic symposia. Her most recent publication was on American artists who worked in Dutch art colonies between 1880 and 1914.
“Portraiture has also always been about the melding of the humanities with the sciences,” said Sajet. “A healthy spirit of inquiry into the history of innovation posits portraiture as a model for talking about politics, religion, philosophy, psychology, geography, and, of course, great design. Always political in nature, a historical portrait cannot illustrate the ‘truth’ of someone’s appearance, let alone their accomplishments. Particularly in terms of selfie-culture and the endless forms of narcissism it promotes, all portraiture empowers individuals to attain a broad knowledge of the wider world as well as a healthy dose of skepticism about their surroundings.”
“The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences responds to the world’s greatest challenges with agenda-setting research on human societies, institutions, minds, arts, and cultures,” said Dean Mary Simoni. “We enter the 21st century with a sense of wonder, affected by a technological revolution and global awareness never before experienced by mankind.”
To read about other Smithsonian Institution programs and lectures held at Rensselaer: