The much-applauded local high school programs of the National Museum of American Art have been abolished by the museum's new director.
In his first major move since taking office in July, director Charles C. Eldredge last week told his staff that the museum is closing its 10-year-old Discover Graphics workshop. The three printmakers who teach there and the two "education specialists" who supervised them will lose their jobs. The museum will no longer send its lithograph and etching presses into local high schools. Its High School Graphics exhibitions will be discontinued. So will its Young Writers Project. Its teacher-training and high school intern programs will be much reduced.
Eldredge, who is restructuring his staff, says he has cut these programs because they are too local.
The changes, wrote Eldredge to his staff, "should enable the museum to achieve its mandate as a national resource, providing services for audiences in both Takoma Park and Tacoma, Washington."
The eliminated programs, Eldredge said, will save his museum "well in excess of $100,000 a year."
The cuts, which have dismayed many local educators, raise a question that has long troubled the Smithsonian Institution: To what degree should a national museum serve this city and its suburbs rather than the nation as a whole?
"These programs," said Rena Watson, supervising director for art for the District's public school system, "have had a profound influence on this city's schools. They have directly benefited our students and our teachers."
None of the Smithsonian Institution officials responsible -- Eldredge least of all -- contends these high school programs have proved unsuccessful. "They've brought credit to this institution," said Eldredge. "My decision was not based on their quality. I am not out to obliterate them because I found them weak. It is a question of their appropriateness here."
"Here we are," he said, "running a high school graphics program--yet our own graphics are deteriorating for lack of a conservation staff. I ask you: What is more important? To teach high school kids to make prints or to conserve those in our own collection?"
Eldredge, 38, is a former director of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. His predecessor, the late Joshua C. Taylor, strongly supported the museum's local high school programs.
"Museums," wrote Taylor in 1974, "need to look at themselves not primarily as citizens of the 'museum world' but as a part of their own communities . . . The curator of the future? I suppose I am asking for a superman who can persuade children and argue as a peer with connoisseurs."
"For all his stuffiness, Taylor wanted kids in his museum," said Peter Bermingham, the curator of education there from 1971 to 1978. "He loved all that noise and craziness. He thought they would learn about art by making art -- and that they would teach their teachers. He thought photgraphers and slides and books were, by themselves, inadequate. He insisted on the one-to-one experience with the work of art."
Richard Murray, who followed Bermingham as the man in charge of the high school programs, said "Eldredge has done the right thing. The programs, though superb, were not national in scale."
Eldredge says he intends to expand the museum's film, video and publication programs. The five teachers he has cut were told of his decision in a series of 15-minute meetings which one of them describes as "the Wednesday afternoon massacre."
The museum, he told them, will no longer have an education office. Instead, there will be a new "public programs" office whose staff will now include the gallery's receptionists. It will be one of five departments run by Barbara Shissler Nosanow, who has been promoted to assistant director.
The abolished programs grew from a seed first planted 1969, when the Washington Print Club organized a print show of D.C. high school students' work judged by Sam Gilliam, Walter Hopps and Percy Martin. In 1971, the second show was held at the museum. With presses donated by the Charles and William Brand Machine Co., and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a print workshop was soon opened there. The Discover Graphics workshop and related programs began to expand when Teresa Covacevich Grana, who had taught printmaking at Eastern High School, joined the museum staff. One sign of the program's success was the steadily increasing quality and technical sophistication of the prints produced there.
There still is a chance that the programs may, in time, be adopted by some other institution. "I am willing to contemplate that," said Eldredge. "If the programs are relocated, their equipment will go with them."