The chairman of the Hirshhorn Museum’s board of trustees has resigned, citing a “lack of inclusiveness with which a number of trustees and staff associated with the Hirshhorn and the Smithsonian have behaved over the past year.”
In a strongly worded letter obtained by The Washington Post, Constance Caplan painted a picture of a board, a museum and the larger Smithsonian Institution 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 he was leaving in May after the board’s failure to reach consensus on his signature project, the Seasonal Inflatable Structure, known as “the Bubble.” According to Caplan, these factors also led to the resignation of several board members, including the former board chairman, J. Tomlison Hill, for whom Caplan took over in October. In a statement then, Hill did not cite a reason for stepping down. Caplan is the third board member to resign since early last month, and the seventh to resign since last year, leaving a dozen board members still serving.
“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,” the letter says.
Caplan, chairman of the Time Group/Washington Place Management, a Baltimore-based real estate and management company, says she took care in crafting the letter. “I really tried to put in what I was feeling,” she said. “I don’t think that my job was to affect what was shown in the galleries, but what I really hoped to do was expand the membership and role of the trustees. I didn’t see that happening. I have other things that were important to me and I didn’t feel that I could be of service to the institution at this point.”
Smithsonian Undersecretary Richard Kurin said Caplan’s resignation was not a complete surprise, because she strongly supported the Bubble project. But Kurin pointed out that she was just named chairman of the board (after having been acting director) at the May board meeting.
“We have to put things in context,” Kurin said. Museums often go through periods of assessing and evaluating their appropriate role, purpose and goals. Everyone knows there were strong opinions about the Bubble project and that the board was sharply divided, Kurin said.
“I know Connie was a strong proponent of the Bubble and very supportive of Koshalek. I know this was a disappointment, but on the other hand, this institution has been around a long time. Good people stay and do their best. Sometimes you don’t agree, but you don’t throw in your marbles and walk away,” Kurin said, adding that board membership is a voluntary position and that people make choices about their roles.
The resignation letter also referenced what Caplan called “the utter disregard” of her ability to set the board’s agendas and meeting dates, and the procedure by which Acting Hirshhorn Director Kerry Brougher, was chosen. “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,” Caplan wrote.
Kurin expressed regret that Caplan felt that way, “but I don’t know what she’s talking about dictatorial.” The advisory board is responsible for acquisitions, deacquisitions, fundraising and some policy matters, Kurin said. “I did consult with a number of people regarding Brougher,” who had been chief curator and deputy director of the Hirshhorn, and it was natural he would step into the interim director role when Koshalek resigned.
In many ways, the Caplan letter and the continuing fallout over the Bubble project is emblematic over a larger split at the Hirshhorn, said a source with knowledge of the Hirshhorn board, who requested anonymity so as to speak freely. There has been time to process the Bubble decision, and certain people feel the project failed because some on the board and within the Smithsonian administration lacked courage and vision, and some feel it failed because there wasn’t enough money to build and sustain it. “It’s a split in worldviews,” the source said.
The search committee for a new Hirshhorn director will be named in the next week, a search firm will be hired within three weeks, and the board is likely to name an acting chairman at the July 25 meeting, Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said. Although a large, active and diverse advisory board is preferable, the slate of resignations “doesn’t destabilize the museum at all,” St. Thomas said.
The museum, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, has a world-class collection, is a leader in collecting new media art and remains a popular draw as the museum of contemporary art on the Mall, Kurin said.
“The Hirshhorn was doing great exhibitions, attracting strong attention, and it will continue to do so,” he said. “Even with the uncertainty, it has a great base.”