Boston is raging about being robbed, and the Red Sox haven’t even blown it yet. Its current enemy, though, isn’t a New York Yankee but a Washington curator: Marvin Sadik of the aggressive young National Portrait Gallery. What happened is that Sadik, with an offer of $5 million to the Boston Athenaeum, a beleaguered private library, is trying to cart off Gilbert Stuart’s most famous portaits of George and Martha Washington. Crowed Sadik: “These are the American icons. [This is] the fulfillment of our destiny.”
Or is it? Roared Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy: “Boston should no more be asked to give up its magnificent Stuart portraits than Philadelphia should be asked to give up the Liberty Bell.” Chimed in Beantown Mayor Kevin White: “This transaction is as absurd as the Louvre selling the Mona Lisa to the Arabs. Washington, D.C. has no culture—they have to buy it.” White even likened Sadik to Hermann Goring, who plundered European museums for Hitler, and two weeks ago the mayor sought a court order to block the sale. His contention: that half of the $1,500 paid Stuart’s widow for the works in 1831 was raised by Boston residents—which created a public trust and an obligation to keep the paintings in Boston.
Sadik shrugged it off, including the Arab and Nazi allusions (he is Jewish), perhaps because White’s grandstanding was publicizing his gallery. Ten years ago it literally didn’t exist, and until Sadik took over a year later, no one ever paid it any attention. In his nine-year reign the gallery’s collection has grown sevenfold to 2,000 works, and attendance has grown fivefold to 500,000 annually. It is housed near the National Archives in the 143-year-old former Patent Office Building (which architect Philip Johnson calls “the greatest building in the world”). Its exhibits, says Joan Mondale, who took her kids there, are “absolutely terrific.” Inclusion is restricted to Americans who have had a notable—or nefarious—influence on the nation’s history or culture. That means Pocahontas and Benedict Arnold share space with Davy Crockett, John Brown, Isadora Duncan and Cole Porter. “This is not a hall of heroes,” notes Sadik. “I want to show the hurly-burly of the American experience,” he adds, strolling his domain in bedroom slippers to relieve his “museum feet.”
One of Washington’s favorite bachelors and table balancers, the urbane Sadik finds his three tuxedos busier than he would personally choose, and sometimes, to his horror, dines out 10 nights in a row. But socializing, he says, is part of the job of any museum director. “It’s called showing the flag.” Yet, however full his dance card, Sadik is always at his desk by 7:45 a.m.
The son of a Springfield, Mass. traveling salesman, Sadik began accumulating 19th-century coins and stamps at 9, and was a precocious student. “My family would say, ‘Marvin is upstairs reading the encyclopedia’—and I was.” While attending Harvard he became hooked on art history, which led to curator jobs at Bowdoin College and the University of Connecticut.
Despite his Massachusetts roots, Sadik considers Boston’s beef about the Stuarts illogical. And he has a point. The portraits, after all, are of two Virginians, painted in Pennsylvania, by an artist from Rhode Island.