Perhaps more than anyone associated with the National Portrait Gallery, Marvin Sadik was a transformative figure in the museum’s history. His vision is responsible for the shape the collections took in the decade after NPG opened in 1968; also, his influence continues to be felt to this day. Beverly Cox, retired director of exhibitions, noted, “The sense of art and style and quality that he brought to the Gallery was exactly what made it the museum it has become. We would have never been what we are today, had it not been for Marvin.”
Sadik arrived at the NPG in 1969 upon the retirement of Charles Nagel, the founding director. Although the doors of the museum had been open for more than a year, the challenge of increasing the collection remained, especially as the mission did not include the collecting of photographs. Historian Margaret Christman records that not all of the early experiences involved easy decisions, but the museum profited by Sadik’s judgment.
A bronze head of Ezra Pound by Joan Fitzgerald, priced at $2,000, came up for consideration [early in Sadik’s tenure]. . . . When the Pound bust was put on display . . . a Washington lawyer protested to Marvin Sadik, “I do somewhat resent the fact that Ezra Pound could warrant being included with such Americans as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, the Kennedys and even Johnson,” and added, “I just feel that Nazis and anti-Semites don’t need national recognition, and I think that your inclusion of him in your Gallery is an affront to those of us who are proud to be American veterans of World War II and members of the Jewish religion.”
“The magnitude of Ezra Pound’s merit as a poet so outweighs his obnoxious activities as a Fascist polemicist that our Commission deemed him worthy of being included in the collection,” Sadik countered. “The National Portrait Gallery isn’t exactly a hall of fame but attempts rather to deal with the whole history of the nation in terms of the people who made major contributions to it. If you will think about it, there are a few other people in our collection, even presidents, whose records leave something to be desired here and there.” He closed with the “hope that you will excuse us a rogue or two. In a way, it is instructive to be reminded how this great republic survives in spite of them.” When Pound died on November 1, 1972, the Fitzgerald bust went on display for two weeks. . . . There was no further controversy.
The 1970s were heady times for major American museums, with curatorial barons like Carter Brown of the National Gallery and Thomas Hoving of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dueling for masterpieces and blockbuster exhibitions. In the fray of competition between the large institutions, Sadik coolly guided the National Portrait Gallery into a series of major acquisitions. Curator Emerita Ellen Miles chronicles the magnitude of those efforts when the fledgling museum went toe-to-toe with the most powerful institutions of American visual culture.
Most important among his acquisitions were Gilbert Stuart’s “Athenaeum” portraits of George and Martha Washington. He also persuaded Congress to permit the gallery to collect photographs, which had been specifically denied in its initial charter. Marvin’s humor, sense of timing, vast knowledge, and visual acuity were legendary. He persuaded Paul Mellon to donate his large collection of engravings by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852) by reminding him of the upcoming date of the artist’s birthday in 1974, which is when the gift arrived at the gallery!
Although Sadik is remembered for his savvy and his willingness to mix it up with the big kids, it is a little white tiger cub that many around the museum remember from this period. Linda Thrift, who worked with Sadik from 1971 until Sadik retired, recounts, “There was the tiger cub from the zoo named Marvin in his honor. They brought it to the gallery and we all got to see it; Marvin became Marvina after the zoo found out he was a she. She was sent to the Cincinnati Zoo—she was an offspring of the zoo’s white tigers.” Beverly Cox adds, “I will always remember Marvin padding off down the hall after the tiger in his velvet slippers (which he wore because of his gout). He enjoyed that moment immensely.”
Sadik was a knowledgeable director and attuned to world arts; prior to his tenure at the NPG, he was director of the Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. After he left Washington, he returned to Maine, where he owned and directed a fine arts gallery. Marvin Sadik, director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1969 to 1981, died this past May in Falmouth, Maine.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery