April 2004

Stress at the Smithsonian

A proposal by the Bush administration to boost federal funding to the Smithsonian Institution was good news for the organization’s leadership after three years of declining attendance, a steep fall in the rate of private donations, and lingering tensions between curators and the institution’s secretary, Lawrence Small.

Adding to the problems was Small’s sentence to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service after pleading guilty in federal court in Raleigh, North Carolina, to violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act by purchasing a collection of Amazonian crowns made with the feathers of endangered birds. And in February, National Zoo director Lucy Spelman resigned after an independent panel probing a series of animal deaths cited “problems at all levels at the zoo.” Spelman had been appointed by Small in 2000.

The Bush administration asked Congress for a 5 percent funding increase for the institution, to $628 million in fiscal year 2005, which begins October 1. The administration also proposed a $33 million increase for the National Endowment for the Humanities, to $162 million for the year, and an $18 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), to $140 million, its largest increase in 20 years. The proposals will be considered by the appropriations committees of the House and Senate before being voted on by each of the two houses of Congress.The prospective funding increase for the NEA follows budget cuts in the mid-1990s that reflected congressional anger over the agency’s support for what was regarded by some lawmakers as objectionable art.

In 2000 President Bill Clinton pulled Small from the business world, where he was chief operating officer of mortgage financer Fannie Mae, to tackle problems such as repairing decrepit buildings, updating dowdy permanent exhibits, and bolstering private funding, which has averaged about 30 percent of the Smithsonian’s total operating budget in recent years. The National Museum of the American Indian, for example, which will open later this year in Washington, D.C., was partly privately financed.

Apart from a few high-profile donations early in Small’s tenure, however, private funding slipped to 15 percent of the budget, or $87 million, in fiscal year 2003 from $164 million in 2002 and $177 million in 2001. Another issue is infrastructure: the 123-year-old Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C., for example, has been closed since last year because falling debris made it unsafe.

“There had been this benign neglect of the buildings for years in favor of the programs, and the deferral of that work has come due,” Ned Rifkin, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, told ARTnews. In January Small named Rifkin the Smithsonian’s first undersecretary of art, with control over eight institutions: the African Art Museum; the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the American Art Museum; the Archives of American Art; the National Portrait Gallery; and the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The appointment, Rifkin says, shows that Small places art “on the same level as science and history.” Visitor numbers have not recovered since September 2001. Overall attendance dipped to 24 million last year from 31 million in 2000; at the Hirshhorn, attendance dropped to 660,000 last year from nearly a million in 2000. Attendance at the National Museum of American History plunged to 2.6 million from 6.3 million in the same period.

Small, who declined to speak with ARTnews, acquired the Amazonian headdresses from a dealer in 1998, two years before becoming secretary, for $400,000. When photographs of some of the pieces appeared in Smithsonian magazine, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started an investigation and found feathers from protected species. Under the plea agreement, Small forfeited the entire collection to the government and agreed to send a “letter of explanation” to The New York Times and three other publications.

The Smithsonian’s board issued a statement backing Small, saying that the conviction “has not impaired, is not now impairing, and will not hereafter impair the Secretary’s ability” to lead the Smithsonian “in the excellent manner in which he has performed over the past four years.”There is no official term limit for the position, which customarily lasts for five years and is renewable for an additional five years.

–Roger Atwood