May 2007

Smithsonian in Crisis

With the resignation of its secretary, the Senate clamping down on its budget, and a devastating report on the state of its art museums, the Smithsonian Institution is under scrutiny and at a crossroads

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is contending with a series of internal and external investigations of its governance in the wake of the resignation of its secretary, Lawrence M. Small. The secretary’s decision to step down followed congressional criticism of his lavish spending habits and a report by seven outside museum officials that faulted the state of the Smithsonian’s art museums.

Scrutiny of the secretary’s leadership began in earnest in January when Smithsonian inspector general A. Sprightley Ryan released the results of an investigation that found Small had run up $87,065 in unauthorized expenses between 2000, when he took office, and 2005. Further inquiry uncovered other questionable expenses, such as nearly $160,000 for redecorating offices at the institution’s administrative headquarters. Ryan wrote that she found no evidence of fraud or abuse by Small, whose compensation this year would have reached $915,698. The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, which hires and supervises the secretary, declared the expenses to be “reasonable.” But Ryan questioned such expenses as $14,509 for the rental of a corporate jet to fly the secretary to San Antonio, calling it “excessive” and unauthorized. She also noted that a junket to Cambodia for Small’s wife and Smithsonian board members was charged to the institution without prior authorization. Under his employment agreement, Small had also received $1.15 million in housing allowances since 2000 with the understanding that he would use his Washington home — on which he had no mortgage — for official functions. About 70 percent of the Smithsonian’s funding, or approximately $715 million last year, comes from U.S. taxpayers. Through a spokesman, Small declined to comment.

Ryan’s findings elicited a vehement response from Congress, particularly from Senator Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. Comparing Small to an “out-of-control CEO” leading a “Dom Pérignon lifestyle,” Grassley launched a probe into the secretary’s spending habits and into what Grassley called a lack of oversight by the Smithsonian’s 17-member Board of Regents, which includes Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Vice President Dick Cheney.

At the same time, criticism of Small mounted when Ryan’s predecessor, Debra Ritt, told the Washington Post that Small had asked her last year to drop an inquiry into Smithsonian Business Ventures, a division of the institution. Ritt said that Small suggested she investigate the Smithsonian’s spending on construction instead.

In March the Board of Regents created an external committee to review the inspector general’s reports on Small’s compensation, expenses, and donations and the regents’ response and actions. According to a Smithsonian statement, the committee, consisting of former U.S. comptroller general Charles Bowsher, former U.S. Office of Government Ethics director Stephen D. Potts, and A.W. Smith Jr., a retired business executive, will continue its probe, regardless of Small’s departure. The board has also created a permanent committee on governance that will compare the Smithsonian administration’s activities with best practices of comparable organizations.

Grassley had initially proposed freezing a $17 million increase in the Smithsonian’s 2008 budget until the institution capped salaries for its top executives at $400,000 — the current pay for a United States president. In light of Small’s resignation, the senator will wait to review the two committees’ findings “before proposing legislative changes, including a possible salary cap for the secretary,” says Jill Gerber, the senator’s spokesperson.

In a press statemen, Grassley called Small’s resignation “a positive step” and said he was confident the next secretary would “restore the institution’s status as a point of national pride.” The board named Cristián Samper, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, as acting secretary and formed a search committee to find a permanent replacement. Meanwhile, David L. Evans, undersecretary for science, stepped down after Small’s departure. W. Richard West Jr., director of the National Museum of the American Indian, announced last year that he will retire in November.

Days before Small’s resignation, a report was released that was highly critical of the Smithsonian’s art museums. Commissioned by Ned Rifkin, the head of the institution’s art division, it complained of cash-starved museums with inferior collections, leaky roofs, complacent leadership, and “insular attitudes.” The report was drafted by a committee composed of Glenn Lowry, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art; John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; James N. Wood, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust; Michael Shapiro, director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; Susana Torruella Leval, director emerita of El Museo del Barrio in New York; Vishakha Desai, president and CEO of the Asia Society in New York; and Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

“The Smithsonian’s art institutions have reached a critical point,” the report stated. “Drastically underfunded, they are unable to lead the nation during a time when their creativity and high visibility give them vast potential to affect the lives of our citizens.”

All seven Smithsonian art museums were found wanting. Leaks in storage areas at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which shares a building on the National Mall with the Freer Gallery of Art, “pose an immediate threat to the collection.” The committee also found leaks at the “sorely underfunded” Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and stated that fixing other infrastructural problems would require “major capital expenditures.”

The National Museum of African Art was cited for a “long-standing lack of visionary leadership” and an “absence of distinguished or groundbreaking exhibitions.” Yet some of the sharpest criticism was reserved for the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, whose joint reopening in the Old Patent Office Building last July after a six-year, $250 million renovation had been considered one of Small’s triumphs.

The committee praised the American Art Museum’s research programs but stated that its late-20th-century and contemporary collections had “evidently been formed much more by opportunism than by strategy.” Critics had previously pointed out gaps in the museum’s holdings, but this report questioned the entire acquisitions program. It contended that the museum “has been purposeful in collecting works by African American and Latino artists over the past fifty years, but these works are often not of high quality; many contemporary masters are absent from the collection while lesser artists predominate.”

The report recommended merging the administrations of the American Art Museum and the Portrait Gallery under a single director while leaving their separate collections separate. (Last year Portrait Gallery director Mark Pachter announced that he plans to retire in October.)

American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun disputes the report’s findings. She says the group visited the museum only once, and that was before renovations on the building — renamed the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture — were complete. “They were given a hard-hat tour,” she told ARTnews. “There was no art up, and they didn’t have any interviews with staff.” She also points out that figures in the report’s 148-page appendix on museum attendance, fund-raising, and other performance measures all dated from 2005, when her museum and the Portrait Gallery were still closed to the public. “We were disappointed that the report didn’t talk at all about the excitement generated by the reopening and the work we’ve done over the last seven years,” she says. “I think we have the broadest and deepest collection of American art anywhere, and I am very proud of my record of leadership.”

Broun notes that she has recently hired two curators. Joanna Marsh, formerly of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, has been named curator of contemporary art. John Hanhardt, who was previously at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, has been named a consulting senior curator for film and media arts.Walsh confirms that the group visited the Reynolds Center while it was still under reconstruction. “But most, if not all of us, have been back since the opening,” he [told ARTnews]. “The report said what it had to say.”

The committee’s conclusions about the Smithsonian’s lack of funding were a particular rebuke to Small, who was esteemed by the Board of Regents for his effectiveness as a fund-raiser [and claims to have] brought in more than $1 billion during his tenure. But Small also kept staff under constant pressure to cut costs. In an oft-cited memo from last year, employees were urged to use “task lighting instead of general lighting whenever possible” and to “turn off decorative or accent lighting.”

Small, formerly an executive at the mortgage giant Fannie Mae, also incensed Smithsonian researchers and curators by trying to trim research budgets and by aggressively courting rich donors with offers of naming rights to buildings and galleries. In 2004 he drew embarrassing press by pleading guilty in federal court to charges he violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act when he purchased a collection of Amazonian headdresses made with the feathers of threatened species.

Former and current Smithsonian officials say Small drastically changed the culture of the institution by focusing it more on raising money, with incentives for big donors.

“In a way, it’s an especially sad comment on the governance system,” says Tom Freudenheim, a former assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian. “Regents were not taking their responsibility seriously, much in the way that corporate boards haven’t done their jobs.”

–Roger Atwood