In a strongly worded letter obtained by The Washington Post on Wednesday, Constance Caplan, chair of the Hirshhorn Museum board of trustees, announced her resignation Monday.
In the letter, Caplan painted a picture of a board, a museum and the larger Smithsonian Institution at a crossroads, roiled by a lack of transparency, trust, vision and good faith. These factors, Caplan wrote, led to the resignation of Director Richard Koshalek, who announced in May that he was leaving after the board’s failure to reach consensus on his signature project, the Seasonal Inflatable Structure project, informally known as the “Bubble.”
Caplan is the third board member to leave since early June. The board has lost seven members since last year, including former board chair J. Tomlison Hill, for whom she took over last fall.
MEMO TO: Board of Trustees, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
G. Wayne Clough, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture
All Hirshhorn Museum staff
FROM: Connie Caplan, Chair, Board of Trustees, Hirshhorn Museum
Dear Hirshhorn Trustees and Staff, Dear Drs. Clough and Kurin:
I hope this finds you well following an enjoyable holiday weekend.
After much thought, and taking many factors into consideration, I am writing to inform you that I have decided to resign as Chair of the Hirshhorn’s Board of Trustees. In addition to personal reasons regarding other time commitments, my decision is based on a series of events these past few months that I have found increasingly troubling, and that have led me to prefer not to remain involved with the Museum and the Smithsonian at this time.
I make this announcement with much regret, since my admiration for both organizations, especially in terms of their collections and research capacities, continues to be as strong as the day I first joined the Board of Trustees. What disturbs me is the contentious manner and lack of inclusiveness with which a number of trustees and staff associated with the Hirshhorn and the Smithsonian have behaved over the past year — factors that also led to the resignations of the prior Board Chair, the Director, and several key Trustees — and persistent indications that this behavior will only continue.
I am certainly not suggesting that 100 percent consensus on every issue has been - or ever would be — my goal as Chair; this is not possible or even desirable with any governing body. What I would expect at the Hirshhorn, however, is that as with all of the other leading nonprofit boards on which I have served, an open and candid decision — making process would prevail between our Trustees, as well as between the Board and the Smithsonian as the Museum’s parent organization. Yet as we have all seen in recent months, this has certainly not been the case, as witnessed by the shocking breaches in confidentiality, inappropriate interruptions during Board meetings, and other negative behavior. In terms of decision-making as well, I was also disappointed that the full Hirshhorn Board was not given the opportunity by the Smithsonian to carefully review and be apprised of the appointment of the Interim Director in advance — a routine courtesy at other leading institutions, and our board’s right as stewards of the Museum and finally the utter disregard of my involvement in setting agendas, meeting dates and Trustee activities of the Board. (Perhaps I should have understood this concentration of power when accepting the position of Chair, but now that it is clear, it has become very troubling.)
While these issues have influenced my decision to resign, of even greater concern to me is the fundamental direction that I now see the Hirshhorn taking, with both overt and tacit approval by the Smithsonian: a regression to programming that imitates a predictable pattern at many other modern and contemporary museums. I certainly understand the serious financial challenges and constraints now at hand; I also deeply agree that trustees should not be involved in the artistic decisions that are clearly the purview of the director and staff. Yet via recent communications from the Museum that simply focus on exhibitions and operations (essential as these are), I see the Hirshhorn abruptly regressing from the vision of serving as “the nation’s museum of contemporary art” — a vision especially appropriate to its splendid, unique setting — retreating at a time when precisely because of the challenges at hand, this larger role is more important than ever. (Witness the recent powerful testimony before Congress on the basic value of the humanities to society - and the fact that top museums throughout the country are becoming prominent advocates for this position while also presenting great exhibitions.) As one very long-time Hirshhorn staff member recently wrote, “The vision of the museum as more than a static repository or showcase of objects — alive and vibrant, a place for applied minds — holds the exciting promise of imaginative solutions to the challenges facing museums and society today. It was inspiring.”
As I leave the Hirshhorn, therefore, I hope that this larger vision can be sustained. I also hope that a spirit of true partnership, rather than conspiratorial “dictatorship,” will prevail between the Board, the many excellent Museum staff, and the Smithsonian leadership. I appreciate the opportunity to have served with you and to have been elected as your Chair, and wish you and the Hirshhorn all the best in the coming year and beyond.