To diversify, the National Portrait Gallery adds performances

This article is part of our latest special section on museums, which focuses on new artists, new audiences and new ways of thinking about exhibitions.


WASHINGTON — For centuries, portraits and busts were reserved for capturing images of the elite, leaving a distorted historical record largely limited to “the rich, the pale, and the men,” said Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

The museum, like many others across the country, is working to rectify these omissions. But it’s not just about diversifying the faces in the portraits and statues that line its galleries. The museum turns to performance to enrich its collection, staging a series of events that aim to animate topics as diverse as immigration, racial identity and the work of black women. The museum has also broadened its approach to portraiture by relaxing some of the eligibility rules for its triennial Outwin Boocher (known as Outwin) portrait competition, the 42 finalists of which will have works on view from April 30.

The events are all part of the museum’s focus on aspects of American history that have been largely absent from its galleries.

“A lot of people were visibly missing” from the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, Ms Sajet said in a recent interview, sitting below a 2006 profile portrait of an erect Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently gazing into the future , opposite a Cassatt-like depiction made two years later of Laura Bush, who was then first lady, reading a book. (Ms Sajet had spent the first part of the morning giving a private tour of the museum’s Presidential Gallery to actor and producer Reese Witherspoon.)

“The question is how to show the presence of the absence? asked Ms. Sajet. “How do we really signal that there are a lot of people, voices and opinions missing?”

“So,” she continued, “how do you present it in a way that people get really emotional about it and think about it and get invested in it?”

The National Portrait Gallery is not alone in raising these questions. Leaders of many institutions dedicated to art and history are exploring strategies to rectify historical and cultural distortions by focusing on underrepresented populations and subjects and by adopting new parameters for the works exhibited, collected and programmed.

For the National Portrait Gallery, “this is where performance comes in,” Ms Sajet said.

On May 17, Dana Tai Soon Burgess, the Smithsonian’s first choreographer-in-residence at a museum, will create a performance that deals with immigration, particularly along the Mexican border. Then, on June 25, as part of the museum’s “Identify” performance series, artist Maren Hassinger will perform a new commission that will attempt to unravel the complications of ancestral and racial history. And, on Sept. 10, artist Holly Bass will debut an eight-hour solo dance performance, “American Woman,” which depicts the under-recognized contributions of black women’s labor to American society.

The National Portrait Gallery was founded by executive order of Congress 60 years ago “to acquire and exhibit portraits of individuals who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States” . When Ms Sajet, who trained as an art historian, took the helm in 2013, she said on her ‘Portraits’ podcast, she found herself ‘struggling’ with the asymmetry of which was and was not represented in the museum’s collection.

In 2015, the museum launched the “Identify” series to invite artists to respond to works to be seen, or to introduce stories and perspectives that they felt were missing from the museum. Mr. Burgess was asked to serve as the museum’s choreographer.

“My goal is to really tap into the exhibits and the permanent collection of unique American stories that celebrate diversity, that celebrate communities that might have been marginalized,” Burgess said in an interview. “And I can do that through dance.”

Mr. Burgess’ new commission “El Muro/The Wall” will have a three-day run in the museum’s atrium courtyard starting May 17. The half-hour program will feature 10 of his company’s dancers, accompanied by live music from Peru-born percussionist Martín Zarzar, formerly of the band Pink Martini.

“El Muro/The Wall” was born when the museum asked Mr Burgess, 54, to respond to works of his choosing from this year’s Outwin finalists. A fourth-generation Korean-American who grew up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood built on a Japanese internment camp in Santa Fe, NM, Mr. Burgess said he was inspired by the painting by Rigoberto A González “Refugees Crossing the Border Wall into South Texas”. (2020). The artwork depicts a family of four clinging to each other as the woman climbs a ladder with a diaper-clad baby in her arms, rosaries dangling from her hand.

Mr Burgess says he was drawn to the ‘baroque feeling’ of the painting: ‘the ugliness of the situation’ unlike “the quasi-sanctification of individuals who attempt to secure themselves”.

Mr. González’s portrait was available as inspiration because the museum dropped an “old rule we had of only having life portraits” eligible for the Outwin, Taína Caragol said, who directed the competition and organized the exhibition with Leslie Ureña. This change, made for the 2019 competition, paved the way for contemporary artists to revisit history and think more imaginatively, even abstractly, about portraiture, she said.

A good example is the work of Ms. Bass, which the competition’s jury found “extremely compelling”, Ms. Ureña said, as it depicts “not one particular individual”, but “a part of our population that has been continually unknown “. Ms. Bass’s short video, “American Woman,” will be one of 42 works on display through Feb. 26, chosen from 2,774 entries.

The idea for ‘American Woman’ came to Ms. Bass (disclosure: the author and artist have been friends since grad school) when she saw Stacey Abrams hailed for her success in voter turnout in the 2020 election in Georgia. “People kept saying black women are saving America,” Ms. Bass, 50, said in a phone interview. “I was struck by this idea that black women as voters and black women as organizers are America’s moral compass.”

The video is 16 minutes and 19 seconds long, a “nod” to 1619, when enslaved Africans were first brought to American shores. And Ms. Bass’ extended one-day live performance in September is meant to reference the white-collar eight-hour workday.

While Ms. Bass is the only triennial finalist planning a live performance, several others have performative elements in their work. In her short video “The Un-Doing” (2021), Adama Delphine Fawundu slowly distresses her hair. Lois Bielefeld’s “Thank You Jesus” (2020) depicts her mother’s love for combining prayer and personal training by quoting “biblical passages memorized while I worked on my board”.

Between the performances of Mr. Burgess and Ms. Bass, there will be a performance by Ms. Hassinger, 74. Part of the avant-garde of 1970s Los Angeles, she participated in the free artist collective Studio Z alongside Senga Nengudi and David Hammons, and later spent two decades as director of the sculpture program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Ms. Hassinger will screen her 12-minute video “Birthright” (2005), which the museum acquired last year. It documents the first time she met distant older relatives in Louisiana and her – sometimes amusing – attempts to trace her complicated ancestral tree through slavery; intermarriage between blacks, whites and aboriginals; and, as she learns, incest.

Ms Hassinger said in a video interview from her studio in New York that the performance would involve her teaching a meditative hand ritual and inviting audience members to share stories about their families as they do so, “like a way to connect.

As well as bringing in performances to help fill some of the museum’s lingering shortcomings, Ms Sajet said she was also working to hire a director of restorative history. But even then, she says, “one of the things we can’t do is go back in time.”

Julia P. Cluff