Smithsonian Opts to Retain Control of Arts & Industries

The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building has been closed for four years.
The Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building has been closed for four years. (National Trust For Historic Preservation/smithsonian Institution Via Reuters)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Smithsonian Board of Regents voted yesterday to stop looking for help from an outsider to rejuvenate the historic Arts & Industries Building, the massive, shuttered exhibition hall at the heart of the National Mall.

Last November the Smithsonian solicited ideas for a public-private partnership to save the building. It also conducted a staff survey about how the building could be used. The public submitted 11 proposals and the staff came up with 2,000 ideas.

But, after a tour of the building Sunday night, the regents decided it should remain a Smithsonian-controlled edifice and operation.

Roger W. Sant, chairman of the regents' executive committee, said the decision was based on several factors. The institution is about to get a new leader: G. Wayne Clough, the president of Georgia Tech, will take over as Smithsonian secretary in July. Also, the Smithsonian is planning a national capital campaign, and some funds will be targeted for a backlog of repairs. And a commission is engaged in a two-year feasibility study on the concept of a Latino American museum, and Arts & Industries is a possible site.

"Ultimately we decided that the Smithsonian should retain control of this historic landmark building," Sant said. The decision doesn't preclude future partnerships on amenities such as a restaurant but rules out outside proposals that have long-term leases.

The Smithsonian closed the building to the public in January 2004 after years of falling roof debris. Several studies said that visitors and staff were at risk because of the deteriorating conditions. The building has been one of the symbols of the Smithsonian since 1881, when it opened as the first national museum.

For years, architectural historians, preservationists and some members of Congress howled about the lack of repairs or concrete plans for its future. The Smithsonian is now spending $200,000 a year on maintenance of the building. The estimate to repair just the shell is about $65 million. Sant said there was no timetable for making a decision about Arts & Industries. "It has been closed for four years and we are getting anxious about it," he said.

In other developments, the regents decided yesterday that they would keep the size of the governing body at 17, but the added new responsibilities for all regents, including the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will be a non-voting adviser to the three-member executive committee. Roberts has agreed to pressure the next U.S. vice president to be an active member of the board. That would be a sharp change, as neither Al Gore nor Dick Cheney attended many of the meetings; the vice president is an ex officio member of the board.

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