Interdisciplinary education at IU helped prepare Kate C. Lemay for National Portrait Gallery post

Indiana University graduate Kate C. Lemay has been appointed historian at The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Kate C. Lemay

Kate C. Lemay

Kim Sajet, director of the museum, said Lemay’s doctorate-level education in both American art and American history fits perfectly with the museum’s mission “to tell the story of America through portraits of people who have made and are making this country.”

Lemay, who assumed her post in June, said she is interested in studying how collective memory is woven into “material culture and the art object.”

Through her research and writings, she hopes to preserve the meanings and histories behind the museum’s portraits.

Examining history through art

The National Portrait Gallery is unusual from the standpoint that it employs historians in addition to art historians.

“Art is a window into another world, be it of a different time period or a different geographical location. It serves as a springboard for discussion about larger contexts and issues that are interesting or that influence the here-and-now moment,” Lemay said.

“This is why art is important as a teaching tool, and also why people love the National Portrait Gallery. The museum uses its collection of portraits to put a face on American history. Our portraits give visitors a kind of gateway to look closer at American culture and heritage and gain a more rounded, deeper understanding of what it means to be American.”

IU memories and mentors

Lemay most recently served as an assistant professor of art history at Auburn University and, prior to that, Brigham Young University.

Before that, Lemay was in Bloomington. “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered so many fabulous restaurants in such a small amount of square footage,” she said.

“IU is a special place. It is the perfect spot for studying, at any level, as it is a tight-knit community without a lot of distractions; it is totally focused on its students’ needs.

“In the beginning of my graduate school years I was struggling — I just couldn’t absorb all the information,” said Lemay, who also earned a master’s degree in art history at IU. “Frankly, I think some of my professors had some doubts about me during my early years!”

Lemay said she worked hard and sought assistance. “Luckily for me, IU offers a lot of infrastructure to students,” she added.

When she was a Ph.D. candidate, the art history faculty and the Office of Research mentored her through the process of landing a Fulbright grant, which allowed her to spend a year in France.

“IU professors are outstanding — interesting and supportive. They genuinely care about their students and are pretty much exemplary as human beings. I am still in touch with the majority of my professors and even count them as friends now.”

To learn more about The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Kate Lemay‚Äôs role there, visit their website and blog.

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