The Zigzag Lines of Cristina Del Sesto

Cristina ‘Cris’ Del Sesto is an excellent reason for young people to not be afraid of wandering off the well-beaten path. A 1986 Georgetown graduate with a degree in art history, Del Sesto’s first job was at the Washington Post, where she started as a copy aid.

One of her biggest responsibilities was giving the layout mock-up from the newsroom to the layout workers, who would then transform it into the front page of the paper. Del Sesto found herself often working past two o’clock in the morning, making sure that each edition that was printed throughout the night was the best it could be.

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Del Sesto describing her adventurous career path, which led to the National Gallery of Art’s acquisition of a Mary Cassatt painting.

“There was always a lot of ink on my shoes,” Del Sesto said on her time at the Post.

Del Sesto was not necessarily planning on being a journalist when she got the job, however. She had only taken one journalism class during her senior year, as Georgetown did not offer a journalism minor at that time. As graduation approached, Del Sesto had gotten the contact information of Post employee Ann Oldenburg, whom she reached out to for a job.

“I was a senior in this journalism class, and my father said I couldn’t come home. I had to have a job. I was calling Ann twice a week and sent her letters. I kept saying that I wanted a job, and she kept saying that there were no positions. I called her and asked, ‘Can I just come in for an informational interview?’ and she wouldn’t even let me do that,” said Del Sesto. “Finally, she relented and said, ‘Oh, alright!’ I went in and about a week after, someone quit and there was an opening as a copy aide.”

Pursuing journalism careers is not uncommon for Georgetown students. However, it is what Del Sesto did after her approximately twenty-year stint with the Washington Post that makes her rather tumultuous career path a unique one. While listening to her describe all of the things she has done, one realizes that Del Sesto is a jack of all trades. Since first starting at the Post, she has worked on a tugboat operation that supplied petroleum products in Martha’s Vineyard, attempted writing a novel, helped launch the music portion of Amazon.com in 1998, and has also worked at an international development company, among other things.

After taking five years off to raise her son, Del Sesto landed a job at the National Gallery of Art, where she continues to work today. There, she is a corporate relations officer in charge of recruiting companies, for example, Faber-Castell and Exxon Mobil, to sponsor special exhibitions within the Gallery. Although the National Gallery is publicly funded through Congress, the funds granted by the federal budget are only spent on things such as building maintenance and paying the guards. It is private funding that brings in art and special exhibitions, which is where Del Sesto’s role becomes crucial to the museum.

“My task is is to figure out for which companies it would make sense to have sponsor something at the National Gallery, and then I have to figure out how to get to the right person. When I figure out who the right person is, I still have to communicate with that person and track them down,” Del Sesto said. “It is exactly like journalism. It’s a lot of leg work, and I do a lot of research.”

While Del Sesto spends a lot of time reaching out to companies who might be interested in funding an exhibit, she occasionally works with individuals on a more personal level as well. The most prominent example of this is the Gallery’s acquisition of Portrait of Eddy, by Mary Cassatt.

“I happened to have brought in Portrait of Eddy, which is why it’s one of my favorites right now,” Del Sesto said.

Del Sesto had lived in the Middleburg-area of Virginia in the nineties and developed many friendships during that time. However, she moved away, and when she returned to the D.C. area to work at the National Gallery, she reconnected with some of those old friends.

It was then that the Gallery was in the process of opening an exhibit on Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. During the preparations, Del Sesto remembered that one of her friends from Virginia had a connection to the great-grandniece of Mary Cassatt, a woman named Julie Thayer Vehr.

“I invited my friend and her mother to come to the gallery to see the exhibition, and I suggested that they bring [Vehr] with them,” Del Sesto said.

Upon seeing members of her family hanging on the walls of the gallery, Vehr became very emotional, Del Sesto recalled.

“[Vehr’s] great-grandfather was Alexander Cassatt, who was Mary’s brother. She saw a male portrait in the exhibition that was of Alexander Cassatt and his two sons, one of which was Eddy, the younger brother. She started talking about Eddy, and kept saying, ‘I would feel like Eddy if I gave the painting away,’” Del Sesto said. “I then realized that she must have had a Cassatt.”

Vehr indeed had her own Cassatt painting. Cassatt had done a portrait of Vehr’s grandfather when he was four years old, and it eventually made its way into Vehr’s possession. An artist herself, Vehr had grown very attached to the painting and was reluctant to give it away.

After about a year of negotiations and meetings, most of which were conducted by Del Sesto, Vehr agreed to donate Portrait of Eddy to the National Gallery. Until then, she had been keeping the painting in her home in Virginia, where it was uninsured and improperly stored. Vehr ultimately felt concerned for the painting’s safety and decided it was best to give it to the National Gallery.

“The reason that this is such an important work to me is not only the story of meeting [Vehr], but of taking something from a private collection to public access. I think that’s the reason why I’m at the National Gallery of Art, because it’s giving public access to art,” Del Sesto said. “A lot of people would not make the decision I’ve made of going from corporate to non-profit. The only way I could justify it in my mind is with Eddy and stories like that—of bringing art to the public.”

When not stumbling upon unknown masterpieces, Del Sesto, who is originally from Rhode Island, enjoys reading and traveling, and has recently started tap dancing.

“I often try taking up various things with no success. I have started taking tap dance. I’m fifteen classes in. We’re doing a routine to “Singing in the Rain”,” Del Sesto said.

Del Sesto continued to reflect on her career since graduating from Georgetown and the jobs she has held since.

“I have had so many jobs and I have lived in so many places. If you were to look at [my career], you would say it makes no sense at all. Yet now, looking back, I am where I started. When I graduated from Georgetown there were two places I wanted to work. I wanted to work at the Washington Post and I wanted to work at National Gallery of Art,” said Del Sesto. “And now, I’ve come full circle.”

As Del Sesto spoke to a group of current Georgetown students, she encouraged them to take risks throughout their lives, especially in regards to their future careers.

“Today I see a lot of young people—and I think it’s older people’s fault—coming in so directed and sure about what they’re going to be for the rest of their lives, and they don’t step off one bit,” Del Sesto said. “So many things happen when you explore and you aren’t so prescribed to something.”

Del Sesto is living proof that when we allow ourselves to take advantage of every opportunity given to us, even if it feels random or unrelated to our broader goals, we discover things—whether that is a painting worth seven-figures, or a job that, if anything, gives us a good story to tell.