What the Smithsonian needs in a leader


Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, will leave his post in 2014. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The next secretary of the Smithsonian will face serious challenges including a decaying campus of buildings that needs major renovation and fundraising concerns that may complicate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And then there are the perennial issues: maintaining relations with Congress, keeping budgets intact, negotiating the cultural politics of the 21st century, and redefining the institution for new generations with an insatiable appetite for digital interaction and spectacle.

And yet ask around, and when people think about what kind of person should replace G. Wayne Clough as the next secretary, they don’t talk in terms of skill sets, or professional background. Business prowess and fund raising skill aren’t even on the list, indeed, after years of wanton commercialization of the institution, they are in bad odor. What matters now, after a string of desultory and sometimes disastrous secretaries, is finding someone with three essential personal qualities: boundless curiosity, courage and generosity.

It’s a testament to Clough’s character that honesty, while obviously essential, is no longer the first thing on the list. Clough was hired in 2008 when the institution was reeling from perhaps its worst period of misgovernment since it was founded in 1846.

Lawrence M. Small was brought aboard as secretary in 2000 to help improve the institution’s fiscal management, but he devoted himself all too assiduously to improving his own fiscal situation, siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars for home expenses, including renovations, utility bills and cleaning services, billing the institution for a luxurious redecoration of his office and “lavish or extravagant” travel costs, including use of a charter jet (according to an inspector general’s report).

He also pleaded guilty to violating federal environmental laws for owning artifacts that included feathers from protected or endangered birds. This last outrage was no minor lapse, given Small’s oversight of a zoo, natural history museum and various centers for conservation and biological research.

The problems Clough inherited weren’t just a string of embarrassments from a venal leader. Small brought an ugly ethos to the Smithsonian, staffed its top leadership with people who shared it, and generally infected the place with the idea that the only bottom line was the bottom line. Old ideals about scholarship and the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” were discarded.

Naming rights to buildings were sold off, donors courted for dubious projects (an ill-conceived “Hall of Achievers”) and commercial alliances formed that sold off access to Smithsonian archives and experts. Showtime was given first right of refusal for commercial documentary projects that use Smithsonian resources, in an arrangement decried by hundreds of top directors and producers.

Exhibitions were dumbed down, staff was demoralized and Congress in an uproar, and for all that, one accounting showed Smithsonian Business Ventures made less money in 2006 than it did in 1999, a year before Small became secretary.

After a period of imperial leadership that reflected the larger and crass sense of entitlement during an era of reckless economic speculation, Clough brought homespun decency to the institution, but he didn’t bring much vision or courage. Smithsonian insiders say he surrounded himself with an inner circle, and while he was approachable, he didn’t often put himself in a position to be approached.

But it was his hasty and cowardly decision to censor a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery for which he will be remembered. Reacting to a tempest whipped up by the Catholic League, and exploited by some conservative congressmen, Clough removed a video by artist David Wojnarowicz (deemed “sacrilegious” by self-appointed monitors of such things) from an exhibition that examined same-sex themes at the National Portrait Gallery. The decision was immediately and roundly denounced by museum professionals around the world, and led to an institution-wide review of procedures.

If Small, who came from a business background, didn’t understand scholarship and integrity, Clough, who came from a science background, didn’t understand the basic challenge of the humanities, which will always invite controversy.

The name that keeps coming up in discussions of Clough’s successor is a man who has been dead for more than a decade, S. Dillon Ripley, who served as secretary from 1964 to 1984. It’s easy to dismiss this retrospection as the sort of navel-gazing nostalgia that all too often holds back institutions from evolving and facing new challenges. But the pining for Ripley is in fact a symptom of everything that remains progressive and idealistic about the Smithsonian. And it is Ripley’s character that people pine for.

“Ripley was one of the greatest people we ever encountered in our lives,” says Robert C. Post, a retired curator at the Smithsonian and author of the recently published “Who Owns America’s Past?: The Smithsonian and the Problem of History.” Post remembers a man who was deeply curious about the world, endlessly engaged in the work of the Smithsonian’s researchers, scholars and curators, easily approached, always enthusiastic, never afraid of Congress and devoted to making the Smithsonian meaningful both to wide and elite audiences.

And he knew how to raise funds, too, while keeping the institution’s independence, integrity and dignity intact. Born a century ago this year, Ripley built the modern Smithsonian, helped found the Folklife Festival, and opened the Sackler, Renwick, Air and Space, African Art and Hirshhorn museums, among others.

For all his institutional prowess and his deft touch with the moneyed and political classes, Ripley is remembered primarily as a man who loved knowledge. Among the many things that rankle about Clough is his having paid more than a million dollars to a “brand experience” firm to come up with the tawdry tagline “Seriously Amazing.” Ripley would never have done that, mainly because his entire life was spent living out the founding idea of the best-branded institution in American cultural life, a Smithsonian devoted to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Ripley, like J. Carter Brown (the dynamic head of the National Gallery of Art from 1969 to 1992), came from a privileged background, and like Roger L. Stevens (founding chairman of the Kennedy Center in 1961) he was at ease among wealth. All three men found it easy to negotiate the nexus of money, politics and culture, and they were asking for donations from a class of wealth that had a stronger commitment to old-fashioned ideas about culture and education.

So it’s a troubling possibility that not only do men like Ripley not exist anymore, but that the world they mastered doesn’t exist anymore. Even more troubling, however, is the possibility that America is no longer producing leaders of this intellectual caliber. We may now be seeing the long-term impact of the fragmentation of knowledge, the contempt for art and the redefinition of accomplishment in exclusively commercial or entrepreneurial terms.

The search committee’s choice will be scrutinized in light of a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Letters that detailed an international trend away from education and funding for the liberal arts and social sciences, a potentially disastrous slight of things the authors says are “essential for the inventiveness, competitiveness, security, and personal fulfillment of the American public.” The next secretary may or may not be from the humanities (Ripley was a scientist), but he or she will have to love them deeply and without condescension, and be able to negotiate the intersection of art and science without trivializing the former or fetishizing the latter.

And he or she will have to think bigger than previous leaders. As an organization, the Smithsonian reflexively defines itself as American. But it has scholars of international reputation, and it should start to imagine itself as an international institution, a worldly, cosmopolitan entity that can convene and attract the best minds and take leadership on issues that threaten our survival as a planet and a species. Again, it’s worth studying the legacy of Ripley, who championed fellowship programs and oversaw the establishment within the Smithsonian of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a policy think tank with a focus on international affairs.

There is good reason to be pessimistic about the search committee’s work. Roger W. Sant, who was one of Lawrence Small’s most strident defenders, sits on the eight-member panel. But there are far deeper reasons to be hopeful, if not about the committee’s decision, at least about the possibility of brilliant future for the institution. And they are all embedded in the existing Smithsonian. Its buildings may desperately need attention, but they are laid out on the greatest single piece of geographic possibility in the United States, the National Mall, where their proximity, and their mix of scientific, cultural, historic and artistic purpose makes them ideally suited for a new era of research, collaboration and education.

And then there is the ghost of Ripley, which far from hampering the institution’s evolution serves as the embodiment of its best values. May he haunt the search committee’s every thought.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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