April 2002

“Tightening Belts” at Smithsonian

A controversial gift is withdrawn amid other budget woes at the Smithsonian

Construction delays, downsizing, a revoked multi-million-dollar gift, a plunge in attendance – – the Smithsonian Institution is grappling with a spate of financial setbacks.

At a press conference earlier this year, the institution admitted that a large-scale renovation of the historic Patent Office building in downtown Washington, D.C., which houses the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, was three years behind schedule and three-and-a-half times over budget.

Days later, Virginia businesswoman Catherine Reynolds announced that she was withdrawing nearly all of a $38 million donation over disagreements with Smithsonian curators on the content of a permanent exhibition at the National Museum of American History.

Then, in mid-February, the institution fired 45 administrative employees in a second wave of layoffs. Last fall 60 people, mainly from gift shops and theaters, were fired. Attendance is down 40 to 45 percent since September 11.

“We’re tightening belts throughout the Smithsonian,” Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small said at the press conference. But private donations continue apace, he said, and no “drastic” program cuts are planned. Private donations account for 30 percent of the Smithsonian’s budget, and, according to spokesman David Umanksy, Small has been successful at keeping them coming at a significant rate. “There has been no apparent slackening,” Umanksy told ARTnews .

Amid these problems, some positive news came from the White House, when President Bush sent his proposed 2003 budget to Congress in February without the feared cuts to the Smithsonian’s funding. The institution’s budget will inch up 1.8 percent to $528 million from $519 million, including $25 million for work at the Patent Office building, if Congress approves the budget as expected.

One of the institution’s biggest headaches has been the large-scale renovation of the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, both of which had been due to reopen early this year. Initial cost projections proved unrealistic, according to Smithsonian officials.

“Funds were not sufficient to accomplish all we set out to do,” says Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum. “And we were late getting started, regrettably. I am pretty sure we can finish construction in 2005 and reopen in early 2006.”

Trouble began almost as soon as the museums shut their doors in January 2000. An early failure to get adequate off-site storage sites for art meant that major construction work couldn’t begin for nearly a year. And the Smithsonian’s original $60 million budget request sent to Congress had deliberately been kept low to avoid pulling money from other planned projects, said one official on condition of anonymity. “Sixty million was what they thought they could get at the time. . . . It was a fuzzy and, now we know, wishful figure.”

More rigorous accounting reviews under Small later helped push the budget up to $216 million. About $166 million of that will come from the federal government, if Congress cooperates, and the rest from private donors. About half the private money has been raised.

The higher costs also reflect new plans for a 350-seat auditorium, to be built with private money, and a glass covering over the courtyard of the ca. 1850 building. In light of cost overruns and delays, the Smithsonian has brought in outside consultants to review the whole project, said Small.

Many curators and researchers say privately that they were happy to see Reynolds revoke her gift for the creation of a permanent “hall of achievers.” The proposed donation had become a lightning rod for Small’s many critics who accused him of selling out the Smithsonian’s prestige by accepting big gifts with too many strings attached. Under the conditions she set, which Small had accepted in principle, Reynolds would have retained the right to name 10 out of 15 people on a board that would designate prominent Americans to be lionized in the exhibition.

In one of the toughest salvos against Small, former Freer and Sackler galleries director Milo Beach accused the secretary of trying to end research at the Smithsonian and turn museum directors into mere fund-raisers.

“Judging from recent words and deeds, the present administration of the institution views the life of the mind with astonishing indifference,” Beach wrote in the Washington Post on January 27, adding that Small’s appointment had “diminished both the institution and the cultural life of this country.”

Small declined to comment on the charges. He has less vocal supporters among Smithsonian staff who cite his attention to the institution’s finances and physical plant and his success in staving off federal budget cuts. Thomas Lentz, director of the Smithsonian International Art Museums division, denied Beach’s charges and insisted the institution was not forsaking research.

– – Roger Atwood