By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008
W. Richard West Jr., the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, spent $48,500 in museum funds to commission a portrait of himself.
The portrait of West by New York artist Burton Silverman hangs in the patrons' lounge on the fourth floor of the flagship museum, which is dedicated to the arts and culture of American Indians. Silverman said West picked him after he saw a portrait Silverman had done of former Smithsonian secretary Robert McCormick Adams. The Adams portrait, completed about a decade earlier, was smaller and cost about half as much.
Silverman, of Polish descent, was chosen, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, after "they couldn't find a Native artist who did formal portrait sittings like this."
West, 64, who went off the Smithsonian payroll on Monday after retiring last month, could not be reached for comment. He has come under scrutiny for his expense spending following a story last week in The Washington Post stating that he spent more than $250,000 in the past four years on trips to places such as Paris, Venice, Singapore, Australia and Indonesia.
Two U.S. senators have asked for independent investigations of West's spending. And, pending a review of West's travel, the Smithsonian Board of Regents has removed West from the committee to select a new secretary of the Smithsonian to replace Lawrence M. Small, who resigned in March after questions were raised about his compensation and spending.
"It appears that Mr. West was determined to meet Mr. Small's champagne lifestyle, glass for glass," Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a letter yesterday to the Board of Regents.
Kevin Gover, who took over as the Indian Museum's director early last month, defended West's travel costs in an e-mail to the museum's advisory board after The Post story ran. Gover said the museum has "an international mission and a commitment to advancing contemporary Native art. This mission and this commitment take the Museum into circles well beyond the means of virtually all of the Indian people I know, yet the Museum must have a presence in those circles."
Gover made his comments in an e-mail obtained by The Post; it is part of a string of e-mails in which advisory board members debated the propriety of the spending. A longtime friend and former law partner of West's, Gover suggested his own travel budget would scale back. "While . . . I will not maintain the kind of travel itinerary that Rick did, I would not presume to question his judgment as to whether his travel was in the best interests of the Museum," Gover said.
West, who used chauffeured cars, first-class train tickets and business-class air travel and stayed in luxury hotels, told The Post in an interview last week that all of his trips were authorized. St. Thomas said the travel was approved by Sheila Burke, then the deputy secretary and chief operating officer.
Travel vouchers from 2003 to 2006 obtained by The Post indicate his spending was approved by Barbara Hart, a Smithsonian program manager. But Hart told The Post this week she left the Smithsonian in late 2001. St. Thomas said Hart's name continued to appear as a default on the vouchers, and current employees signed them.
Grassley wrote a second letter to Smithsonian Inspector General A. Sprightley Ryan asking her to look into the travel expenditures of West and those of the 17 other directors of Smithsonian museums. St. Thomas said the Smithsonian chief financial officer is doing a "quick review" of the travel spending of the top officials at the institution. Last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee that oversees the Smithsonian, asked the Board of Regents and the General Accountability Office to investigate the spending.
"Mr. West's itinerary for July-December 2007 alone would make the editors of most travel magazines green with envy," Grassley said in his letter to the regents.
The debate among museum advisory board members began when Frederick E. Hoxie, a University of Illinois professor, sent an e-mail to the board saying: "The 'news' in the story is that West's travel was 'lavish.' By whose standards? Not by mine. All travel was approved by West's superiors."
Brian Henderson, who served on the museum board from 2000 until this week, replied to Hoxie's e-mail, telling board members: "It is beyond belief that one person could and would spend the public trust in such an inconsiderate way, recognizing the message that this sort of spending on personal travel has and would have on Indian people."
Henderson, a Merrill Lynch investment banker of Apache descent, said in his e-mail: "You must not forget the extraordinary effort made by all tribes to raise money, including lunch allowances given up by youngsters at levels of pennies/dimes, to help meet the quota for the building of the Museum itself. Rick's behavior and that of his 'superiors' smacks of insensitivity at best and arrogance at worst."
Henderson, in his note, said that he resented the fact that he had been asked to donate money to sponsor the museum's participation in the Venice Biennale, an international art show. Four of West's most expensive Smithsonian-paid trips were to Venice, including a $13,000 tab for West's travel to the 2005 biennale.
"I was pressured by then Director for Development, Elizabeth Duggal, to help subsidize the events in Venice and I contributed $5,000 of my own to in effect, pay for $1,000 a night stay for Rick West !!!!" Henderson wrote. Reflecting on all his donations over the years, he added: "I could have sent at least 25 deserving Indian students for a four year degree program anywhere in the US, or funded a wellness center or two on the Rez, or a sports program in many of the needy schools."
In an interview, Duggal said that Henderson volunteered to make the donations. "I am completely stunned and surprised by those remarks," she said. West, the founding director of the museum, helped raise $155 million to open the Indian Museum. The museum spent $124,000 on going-away activities for West, including $30,000 to produce an eight-minute DVD biography.
West authorized the expenditure for the portrait, completed in 2005, after consulting with some members of the museum's advisory board, St. Thomas said.
Henderson and another trustee, Norbert Hill, said they were not consulted. Hill said he thought the portrait was paid for by a law firm.
The Adams portrait, along with those of other secretaries of the Smithsonian, are in the administrative wing of the Castle, but belong to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery collections. No other museum directors have commissioned portraits of themselves, St. Thomas said.