The corporate vulgarian in charge of the Smithsonian

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 30 10:43:14 MDT 2001


NY Times, April 30, 2001

Smithsonian Chief Draws Ire in Making Relics of Old Ways

By ELAINE SCIOLINO

WASHINGTON, April 29 - The scientists at the Smithsonian Institution's
National Museum of Natural History were under orders to be civil, but they
were too angry to obey.

Lawrence M. Small, the director of the Smithsonian, was coming over for a
town hall meeting. But when he turned up in his government-issued,
chauffeur-driven black sedan, he found himself under siege.

One scientist asked Mr. Small if he was trying to "kill research" at the
taxpayer-financed Smithsonian, according to a tape recording of the April
17 meeting made available by one of the scientists who attended. Another
accused him of failing to consult with Smithsonian scientists before
deciding to shut down its world-renowned zoological research center. And a
research assistant told him, "I don't know how you justify being a
nonscientist and yet making huge decisions about science."

When Mr. Small left his job as president of Fannie Mae, the federal
mortgage lending institution, to take over at the Smithsonian 15 months
ago, he was promoted as a Renaissance man determined to transform the
world's largest museum complex into an advanced 21st-century operation. Mr.
Small plays classical flamenco guitar and has created a private museum for
his personal collection of Amazonian birds' feather art. But he is the
first nonacademic and only the second nonscientist to head the institution,
and he does not hold any advanced degree. . .

Mr. Small, who has not relinquished his seats on the boards of Marriott
International or the Chubb Corporation, has also teamed with corporations
to increase the Smithsonian's nongovernmental financing. The partnerships
offer corporations invaluable good will and free advertising. Near the
entrance to the panda exhibition at the zoo, for example, a fake stuffed
panda holds a giant Fuji film sign. And the Smithsonian and Kmart have
started a traveling museum (in a trailer with both the Kmart and
Smithsonian logos) featuring African-American sacred music.

"Corporations are made up of my neighbors and my fellow citizens," Mr.
Small explained. "I don't believe they're inherently evil." Mr. Small is
also determined to eliminate "an archipelago of semiautonomous entities
that has existed for years," a move that could strip the museum and
research-center directors of much of their independence.

Last October, he gave each museum director detailed strategic goals that
would increase fund-raising by dictated percentages per year for the next
three years, sharply increase the identification of potential seven-figure
donors and arrange introductions of dozens of potential donors to Mr. Small.

"Larry believes that if we've got a whole lot of money to raise, we've got
to talk to rich people, and he wants a supply of rich people to talk to,"
said Robert Fri, director of the Museum of Natural History. "It's workable."

But some directors are concerned that museum programs are becoming
money-driven. "To be told that a sum must be raised for its own sake and to
have to devise needs to justify that sum misunderstands the character of a
cultural institution, perhaps especially one with substantial federal
funding," said Milo C. Beach, the director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
and the Freer Gallery of Art, both part of the Smithsonian.

Shortly after taking over, Mr. Small did away with the tradition of holding
monthly meetings with the directors to discuss everything from budgets to
Congress. The directors no longer enjoy unfettered access to Mr. Small's
office, the way they did under his predecessors, and except for urgent
matters, they must report to him through his under secretaries.

Mr. Small's goal-oriented, top- down style is felt in other ways. Last
April, for example, he ordered the National Museum of American History to
create and install a permanent exhibition on the American presidency by
Election Day, allowing seven months for a project that would normally take
years. That required teams of Smithsonian employees to set aside works in
progress, and the early closing of a Woody Guthrie folk music exhibition, a
decision that prompted his daughter Nora Guthrie to accuse Mr. Small in
writing of a breach of contract.

Even members of the Board of Regents have felt Mr. Small's ire. Late last
year at a Regents meeting, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York
Democrat, who was leaving the board as well as the Senate, argued that Mr.
Small's decision to incorporate the Freer Library into the larger
Smithsonian Library violated the Freer's charter. "Larry cut him off in
midsentence," said someone familiar with the meeting. "He was very, very
rude."

Mr. Moynihan was so stunned that he did not deliver parting words of
appreciation, as he had told others he would, for his 14 years on the board.

Mr. Small's critics have also found fault with his private museum of
feather art, which is housed near his home in an apartment where he holds
monthly fund-raising dinners. The collection of arrows, capes, headdresses
and spears was mounted by a husband-wife team of architects rather than
curators and contains no captions to explain what the objects are.

"I asked how the exhibit was organized and was told that the designer
decided what goes with what," said one recent visitor and feather- art
expert. "I suddenly had this sinking feeling that I was looking at
decoration. Amazon feather art was being treated the way one would treat
chair fabric."

Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/30/national/30SMIT.html


Louis Proyect
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