Sue Garton, Yale ‘87, is the Acting Head of Collections Information and Research at the National Portrait Gallery. She was furloughed during the federal government shutdown this winter.
The Politic: Can you tell us about your job?
Sue Garton: I sort of have two jobs right now, because the former Head of Collections Information and Research retired several years ago, and the position was not re-filled because of an office reorganization. So I’m acting head of Collections Information and Research, and also Data Administrator for the Portrait Gallery’s collections information system. My department maintains a research archive called the Catalog of American Portraits, which opened in the mid ‘60s, before the Portrait Gallery was even open to the public. We collect information and images of American portraits throughout the U.S. and abroad.
In the 1970s, the CAP began an on-site survey of collections in all fifty states. That was actually my first job: traveling as a field surveyor to other museums, historical societies and private collections—cataloguing portraits, taking photographs and bringing the information back for our archive. We had a database long before the Portrait Gallery digitized its collections, which is how I came to be the data administrator for the museum.
My job is data, data, data…and research. The one other colleague in my department responds to research inquiries from the public. Taxpayer dollars fund my department, and it’s great that we’re able to provide this service.
The CAP has a file room down on our basement level, and we’re about to do a big renovation project to bring it up to current climate and security standards. Because there are only two people in my office, I’m also helping coordinate this construction project. It’s like [this for] so many people who work for the Smithsonian: we’re understaffed, and everybody wears a lot of hats, and it gets a little crazy sometimes. Losing a month during the furlough was a big deal, but it did slow the pace for a while and allow everybody take a deep breath and say, “Okay, you know what? Nobody’s life is at stake here.” Because sometimes when I feel stressed out, I do wonder how doctors sleep at night!
How did you start working at the Portrait Gallery?
At Yale, I majored in American Studies with a history concentration, and I took several classes in art history and studio photography. I had an internship at the National Portrait Gallery during the summer after my junior year and really enjoyed it. I wrote my Senior Essay on Documentary Photography in the Civil Rights Movement. My interest was definitely in the arts, but I didn’t have a solid Art History background when I graduated. So, after a year working as a paralegal in Boston and not enjoying it, I moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, where I audited classes in Art History and German at Dartmouth College, volunteered for the Hood Museum of Art, and applied to graduate schools for Art History…and waited tables to pay the rent! I spent the following two years in the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art, and after graduating, I got my first position at the National Portrait Gallery (in the Catalog of American Portraits). The Portrait Gallery was and is the perfect place for my interests and background, since it’s both an art museum and a history museum.
When did you start working full time there?
In December 1991. Besides being a paralegal for a year, that’s been my only full time job. But what I do there has changed. With technology, I think pretty much everybody who started working that long ago has experienced change in whatever job they do. We didn’t have email until the mid-1990s, so for my first few years, we circulated paper notes and memos to communicate. Things were different.
What are your favorite parts about your job?
Let’s see. It’s funny because sometimes I feel torn between the data [work I do to] and the more scholarly side, but they really do go hand in hand. I really do love working with the data and trying to find ways of using it for research purposes. I especially enjoy working on collaborative projects aimed at making data more accessible and useful for everyone, like the American Art Collaborative’s linked open data initiative.
How has the job changed under the Trump administration?
We haven’t been any worse off really, because the Smithsonian is relatively small and under the radar. My job has not changed at all, but the mood in the office is sometimes more gloomy. There’s uneasiness about the future of the arts.
Do you remember your first reaction to shutdown announcement?
Shock! We did actually have a one day shutdown last fall, and I’ve been through two other major shutdowns myself. I was there for the three week shutdown in 1995. We hear the threat more and more frequently, but it usually it gets resolved at the 11th hour. So I kept thinking, “This isn’t going to happen, they’ll figure it out, because it would be really stupid to shut down the government.”
I had taken off the week of Christmas, and I left thinking everything was fine. During the first week, the Smithsonian operated on contingency funds, so I was following work emails and assuming a vote would be passed before the end of December. When it wasn’t, I finally realized I had no idea what was going to happen.
Then it went on beyond that week. Again, I just couldn’t believe it, and I thought “okay, one more week,” and then finally it was, “okay, I guess this is going to go on a long time.”
During the shutdown, Portrait Gallery staff who were not furloughed had posted (on a whiteboard in our conference room) their bets on when we would return. The guesses were all over the place.
Can you explain trust fund funding?
Not all Smithsonian salaries are federally funded. Trust fund positions are paid by funds that come from sources like the Smithsonian endowment, revenue from business activities, donations, and grants. Trust employees are not federal employees, so they were not furloughed, even if their jobs are not deemed essential.
What was it like to not have to go into work during the shutdown? Other than vacation during the first week, what did you do during that period?
I won’t lie, I was happy as a clam. I think a lot of people felt this way: we get really busy and stressed out, and lots of us are commuting into the city (part of the difficulty of working is just getting there, because Washington is not easy). Nobody missed the whole grind of daily life.
I was thrilled to be able to do projects at home that I thought I’d never get to before retirement. I weeded out closets and took a car full of stuff to the Salvation Army, the local library and the trash/recycling center. The lines were long, since so many other federal employees were doing the same thing! One day I took an old family portrait to be reframed by an expert who began his career years ago at the National Portrait Gallery. It was a real adventure visiting his studio in Dupont Circle. I cleaned things in my house that I normally try my best to ignore. I did some house painting, as I did during the last government shutdown—bathroom trim this time. I took my son’s sleeping bag to a laundromat, since it won’t fit in a standard washer-dryer. I sat there with my book, thinking pathetically “What a treat!” Who wants to do these kinds of things on the weekend? One last thing I got to do was exercise—every single day.
I was just very happy to be home. I have a son still in high school, and my husband is a teacher, so they’re home in the afternoons and I’m usually not. To be home when they got home was really nice. To be the one to cook dinner because my husband does it more often during the week these days, that was just great.
Can you tell me what it was like to talk to family and friends who were also affected by the shutdown?
I have a cousin who retired from the National Park Service in early December, and she and her husband set out on a cross-country adventure the day after her retirement, visiting many of the national parks along the way. Ironically, she was affected in a completely different way than she would have been had she retired just one month later. They managed to have a very nice trip despite the problems caused by the shutdown.
For some coworkers, the lack of a paycheck was a hardship. One friend has a husband who works for the government too but wasn’t furloughed. He went every day to José Andrés’ pop-up kitchen to get lunch and some sides to bring home for dinner. Andrés is a chef famous for providing food relief through his World Central Kitchen and other humanitarian projects. His emergency lunches and take-home [meals for] furloughed government employees were appreciated by many.
I asked other coworkers who weren’t furloughed whether they were resentful having to work while the rest of us had a “free vacation.” But even they enjoyed the time, as the pace was slower and they were able to catch up on projects. One colleague told me that her days were much easier, since traffic was light and she didn’t have to take her son to daycare. The Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center was closed, but fortunately, she had help from family.
Many of my colleagues were more fortunate than other government and non-government employees who were so adversely affected by the shutdown. My only hardship was feeling guilty that I was enjoying myself so much while others were really suffering. Watching the news was even more unpleasant than usual. I looked into volunteering but wasn’t able to find temporary volunteer projects. It’s too bad more charitable organizations didn’t have short term projects for furloughed employees.
What was it like the day you came back to work?
On day one, the National Portrait Gallery’s Director, Kim Sajet, welcomed us back with tulips and posters, and she held a 15-minute meeting to gather us together in one room and update us on what we had missed. But after that it was just noses to the grindstone. The first couple of days were oddly quiet and calm, and I naively hoped this might be a bit of a new norm–like once everyone had been able to take a deep breath, the pace would be less frenetic. But no, everyone was just catching up on email that first day! After that, the fast pace returned with a vengeance.
Now a couple of weeks out, are there any ways you’re still feeling the effects of the shutdown?
I would say that now we’re definitely making up for lost time. It feels just as frenetic—maybe more—than it ever was.