The Nation's Attic

Monday, April 24, 2006

IT IS PUBLIC BUT private, part of the government but not quite: As the institution itself likes to point out, the Smithsonian has a unique status in Washington. Although most Smithsonian employees are civil servants, a handful -- including the museum directors and the Smithsonian secretary himself -- are not. Although the museums receive three-quarters of their funding from Congress, the Smithsonian raises the rest from private donors and from its business operations, including shops, restaurants and a magazine.

For the Smithsonian, the trick is to find a balance between public and private activities: to encourage donors, for example, without forgetting that something called the National Gallery requires a collective sensibility, too, or to attract good business managers without losing good curators. Sometimes the institution loses that balance -- as it did when it recently signed a controversial contract with Showtime Networks, a commercial cable channel, to produce a series called "Smithsonian on Demand." In part because the contract details are confidential and in part because the Smithsonian says the deal gives Showtime Networks the right of first refusal on any documentary that makes more than "incidental" use of Smithsonian collections, the deal has angered documentary filmmakers who have traditionally enjoyed open access -- for a small fee -- to museum collections.

The Smithsonian argues that the filmmakers in question make money out of their work: Why can't the Smithsonian do so, too? Of course it can -- as the National Geographic Society does -- but it must be under different rules from a purely private body. As a quasi-public institution that receives taxpayers' money, the Smithsonian is obligated to reveal the details of its business deals to the public. It is also obligated not to make deals that restrict public access. Charging larger fees when its collections are to be used for commercial purposes may be acceptable; writing complex, secret rules about who can use them and who cannot is clearly wrong.

As it happens, this controversy over filming is unfolding just as the Smithsonian's inspector general is carrying out an investigation into the accounting practices of the Smithsonian's business division, as well as the scale of executive pay. Again, while it is hard to object to business executives of a commercial operation being paid on a different scale from federal employees -- this happens in other parts of the federal government -- the fact that Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small earns a breathtaking $813,000 per year should cause the inspector to pause.

According to a spokesman, Mr. Small's salary is set by the Board of Regents, aided by a professional consultant. It is unseemly that an institution whose physical plant, as Mr. Small himself says, requires millions in government investment should be spending that kind of money on executive compensation. Again, there's nothing wrong with recruiting good executives from the private sector. But they ought to understand that working for the Smithsonian is, at a minimum, a quasi-public service.

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