ALWAYS, THEY talk about her energy. Everybody who knows Janet Solinger talks about her energy. Even her detractors -- and she has a few -- will tell you about her energy, about how tireless she is, how absolutely ndefatigable, and how she took this languishing outreach program at the Smithsonian Institution, this rather artsy-craftsy enterprise called the Resident Associate Program and
really turned it around, really increased the numbers, gave it some zip, some excitement, some pizazz.
S. Dillon Ripley, former secretary of the Smithsonian, calls Janet Solinger "a dynamo." He ought to know -- he hired her. Ripley, you might say, unleashed Solinger on the Smithsonian, and on Washington. Ripley, it will be remembered, also put the Carousel near the east door of the Castle, encouraged people to
go to the Mall in their T-shirts and shorts and play Frisbee there . . . all that. It was part of his innovative plan to get more of the local populace involved with this monolithic and rather forbidding institution called the Smithsonian. Janet Solinger would figure prominently in that plan.
Not that Janet Solinger is a household name, even after 13 very visible and sometimes controversial years as director of the Resident Associate Program, which is observing its 20th anniversary with a series of glittery events (a kickoff concert by Washington singer Karen Akers and her trio; lectures by luminaries such as Dr. Jonas Salk, J. Kenneth Galbraith and actress Melina Mercouri in her capacity as Greek minister of culture) that continue through December. But Solinger has had an impact, no question about it.
laden, art-bedecked office in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building next door to the Castle on the Mall. Solinger is, no surprise, a study in nervous energy. She fidgets, she squirms, she twists. She fusses with the skirt of her purple-checked Chanel-style suit. She shifts position again and again and again. She's giving that red velvet overstuffed chair a real workout.
She is a tall, slender woman in her early sixties. She looks younger. Perhaps it's the hair that does it, the champagne blond hair. Whatever, she does not fit the Smithsonian stereotype at all. Not with that green eyeshadow and those silver fingernails. Not with that blunt, forthright, fast-talking manner. She's flashier, more New Yorkish, even though she was born in Cincinnati and lived there a long time before moving to New York after her first husband died.
That's where the Smithsonian search committee found her, at New York University, where she was in charge of programming development for the School of Continuing Education. Before that, she had been administrator of the Jewish Museum. Recalls Bob Mason, head of the search committee, now public relations director for Friends of the National Zoo: "I remember very distinctly. You know when you have a live one -- sparks flew immediately."
Janet Solinger joined the Smithsonian in June of '72. "It seemed like a challenge," she says. "I'm sure I dreaded it as well. I think the Smithsonian is fabulous, but I wasn't sure I wanted to leave New York. If it hadn't been a beautiful spring day . . . "
She had some good-enough credentials, along with a B.A. in English literature from the University of Cincinnati and a master's in arts administration from New York University. But what she really had going for her was drive and an entrepreneurial flair -- plus a certain instinct for trends and a lot of New York connections.
Within a year, she says, she doubled the Resident Associate membership, to 15,000, and it reached 25,000 within 18 months. (Today it's 56,000 individual and family memberships in the Washington area, with an 80 percent retention rate. It used to be 50 percent.) "We did a mailing promotion, a big effort," she says, "and I established a newsletter. In the past it had been four announcements in four envelopes. They would get one and throw the other three away, thinking it was the same thing. The newsletter unified it. Sometimes it runs 40 pages now, there are so many activities. I also gave them the Smithsonian magazine every month . . . another incentive."
She did make waves early on with her adventurous programming, particularly in the lecture series. Many botanists were offended when Solinger scheduled an author who advised talking to plants. Poet Allen Ginsberg caused a furor when he said the drug trade was run by the CIA, and so did Nikki Giovanni when she said President Ford was dumb. Solinger scheduled Erica Jong, author of the sexually explicit novel Fear of Flying as part of the Great Women of Arts and Letters series. But the Smithsonian, fearing another flap, canceled the appearance. They got one anyway -- more than 2,000 letters protesting the cancellation.
"It all seems like ancient history now," Solinger says, apparently weary of talking about it. "When I came, during Nixon and Agnew, I think it was a kind of scary time, a much more political time. It's a different mentality now. I don't think it's fair to compare."
Yes, she says, the Smithsonian was apprehensive about her programming "in the beginning. I think I made them nervous -- what is she going to do next? I was brought in to create a new market. I tried things . . . "
"She's a kind of icon of the place now," says Wilton Dillon, director of the Smithsonian's Office of Symposia and Seminars. "She is willing to try the outrageous, shake things up. But she's a realist. When she is unable to persuade, she won't hit her head against a wall."
"She likes what she calls 'lively' programming -- big, splashy things, and also very expensive things," says Marcus Overton, senior program director for performing arts at RAP. Solinger recently scheduled an Air and Space "sleepover," in which 50 boys and girls ages 11 to 13 saw films and planetarium shows and then stayed overnight in their sleeping bags. It went over very well, but "it drove the Smithsonian crazy," she says.
When she took over the program, "it was all very artsy-craftsy -- a tremendous emphasis on studio art," she says. "There weren't any courses. Very occasionally, films. No seminars. There was a very nice tour program, but not like we have today . . . "
Today, Janet Solinger coordinates and is "totally responsible for" a program that attracts more than 300,000 adults and children a year to a wide range of activities -- courses, walking tours, bus tours, lectures, seminars, films and performing arts events, plus workshops, studio arts and special projects for children, such as a scholarship program for inner-city young people to attend courses tuition-free. She has an annual budget of $3 million, a paid staff of 46 (up from "seven or eight" when she came, she says) and "80 or 90" volunteers to make the program go.
Membership fees ($30 individual,
$48 family), Solinger says, are the
program's main source of revenue,
along with ticket sales for events,
available to members at reduced
prices. The majority of resident
associates are well-educated
professionals between the ages of 35
to 45, she says.
The program was losing money
when she came, Solinger says, but
managed to turn a profit every year
until 1983, when it took over the
performing arts division and the
Discovery Theater for children. The
basic program still makes money,
she says, but the theater is in the
red about $70,000 a year, and
performing arts loses $100,000 --
much less than under its previous
management, she points out. The
Smithsonian makes up the
"We are self-supporting,"
Solinger says. "No federal grants.
We pay rent and overhead."
"Janet Solinger has always been terribly jealous of being in the black -- she's a great little merchant," says her supervisor, James McK. Symington, director of the Office of Membership and Development. "She has always shown black figures for her operation. But a couple of programs we assigned from other units of the Smithsonian were money-losers, so that now she shows red, and she doesn't care for it at all."
"Essentially, the RAP is viewed as an educational activity," says E. Jeffrey Stann, deputy director of the OMD. "I think it's fair to say the Institution expects the program to operate in the black and be self-supporting, but the emphasis is primarily on the program, as opposed to the income side."
Still, the Resident Associate Program today is one of the biggest and most successful of its kind in the country. And Solinger has received a great deal of personal praise, so synonymous has she become in many minds with the success of the program. She has been decorated by three countries -- West Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium. She was named a "Washingtonian of the Year" this year by Washingtonian magazine. She's asked to be a consultant, give speeches, sit on boards. She has been offered jobs in advertising and public relations that would pay her considerably more than her GS16 salary of $68,700. She has turned them down. She seems to thrive on being the Smithsonian's Lady Otreach, catering to educational and cultural needs in Washington.
"She's done marvelous work," says former boss Ripley. "We like everything she's done." advertising and public relations that would pay her considerably more than her GS16 salary of $68,700. She has turned them down. She seems to thrive on being the Smithsonian's lady outreach, catering to educational and cultural needs in Washington.
"She's done marvelous work," says former boss Ripley. "We like everything she's done."
DESPITE the accolades, though, many of Solinger's colleagues report her to be a person extremely difficult to work for. Staffers, and ex-staffers, talk about "a dehumanizing work atmos- phere," bad morale, fast burnout.
"It was the most miserable experience of my life," says Debbie Cooney, who found her six months as editor of the RAP newsletter a thankless task. She is now with a Washington think tank. " . . . I was working seven days a week, also doing a major ad campaign, and pushed beyond the limit."
"The staff is definitely overburdened," says Alice Spencer, who left earlier this year after six years as an associate program coordinator. "Program coordinators were required to go to all the events . . . When I left, I had been working until 10 o'clock at night for six years. It was very draining."
Janet Solinger's response to those who complain about the long hours and lack of appreciation for their efforts is matter-of-fact: "The Smithsonian is a way of life. If you don't like it, then leave."
"I was more than ready to go," says Michael Allen, former associate director of programming for seven years, now director of continuing education at Johns Hopkins University. "The pace is extremely hectic. There's a high turnover rate, because there's so much work to do, and you're always faced with budget problems.
"She's a very complex person," says Allen. "I don't think she appreciates anybody but herself. She has one of the biggest egos going."
"Janet does chew up her staff," says Bob Mason, her discoverer and an early executive director of the program. "She's fascinating, in a way . . . what makes Janet run. She has to run very fast, because there are a lot of people who don't like her at all . . .
"She manages by force of will," Mason says. "I don't think it's good management. She's a brilliant promoter and excellent copywriter. The breadth of the program is to her credit. There's no question she should get some credit, but she has made herself controversial."
Solinger looks surprised and hurt when her critics' assessment of her as an inconsiderate, egocentric hard- driver is mentioned to her. "There are long hours," she concedes. "The people who work in lectures and seminars do have a lengthy schedule. On the other hand, these are labor- intensive jobs, and they have to be there . . .
"You don't work for somebody because you love them," she goes on. "What do they want from me? I'm really not a bad person. I don't think I'm hard to work for. My own secretary has been here for 10 years.
"Listen, we both get mad at each other. You can ask Cheryl .." "We get along very well," says Cheryl Lytle, who majored in art history at Vassar. "We respect each other. She likes my sense of humor. We can scream at each other when we're being driven crazy, but we both know it isn't personal, it's because of the work."
James Symington, who has been Solinger's immediate supervisor for the past seven years, offers this view: "Aggressive achievers like Janet probably tend to take a great deal of the credit, credit that should be shared with her subordinates, whose efforts have made it possible. But, what the hell, she's got a pretty remarkable ego, and it's not easy for her to do this."
JANET SOLINGER believes in hard work and vigorous play. "I'm a practicing hedonist, as well as a workaholic," she says. "I go out with four men in Washington. I think it's fun to mix them up. It's sort of adolescent. We go to dinner, we go to the theater. I like men who are intelligent and witty .
I like life. I generally have a good time."
But there have been some bad and tragic times: the death of a son at an early age, the death of her first husband, Nathan Solinger (like her father, a prominent Cincinnati lawyer) of a heart attack at age 48, leaving her with three young daughters to raise alone. There was a brief second marriage years later to "a much older man" in Great Neck, N.Y., "a nine-month marriage -- it's not worth discussing," she says.
"She was the only child for the first six years of her life," says her sister, Marilyn Klein, a policy analyst with the Department of Transportation, who describes their growing-up years in Cincinnati as "comfortable, even though it was the Depression." (She also has a younger brother, Richard, in real estate in Cincinnati.) "She was a star student, a Phi Beta Kappa." Her daughters, now grown, are also high achievers -- a lawyer, a Chinese studies professor and a PhD candidate who has also produced two "perfect" grandchildren, Solinger notes with pride. But no, says her youngest daughter, Martha, a New York lawyer, "there was no particular pressure on us. I think she wanted us to be happy. She was, I'm sure, a role model for all of us to work hard and do well."
Solinger lives alone in what Wilton Dillon calls "a wonderful art gallery of an apartment" in The Colonnade on New Mexico Avenue. Modern art is one of her major enthusiasms. At least twice a year she conducts one of the most "sophisticated" and popular RAP tours, to New York art galleries and dealers.
She was "devastated," she says, when Gene Davis, the dean of Washington painters and "a very good friend," died last April. The silk- screen edition of his 20th anniversary commemorative serigraph is being sold, she says, to benefit the Discover Graphics program.
She's not at home that much. "She's out and about in a way that's good for the program," says Marilyn Klein. "She sees what's going on. It's all grist for her mill. She's very dedicated to her job."
"She doesn't like to be alone at night," says Michael Allen, discussing her taste for the social whirl. "She has a tremendous amount of nervous energy. She's the kind of person who can work all day and party all night."
Her office bookshelves are filled with framed pictures of Janet Solinger mingling with celebrities -- dancing with Nelson Rockefeller, chatting with late author and playwright Lillian Hellman, who did a RAP lecture, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, "my good friend Clive Barnes," the New York Post drama critic, and others. She mentions "my good friend Daniel Boorstin," the librarian of Congress, and "my dear friend Effie Barry," wife of Mayor Marion Barry, and "my good friend Larry Rivers," the New York painter.
"I think she enjoys the society of intellectuals," says the Museum of Modern Art's Ed Gallagher, who worked with Solinger for four years as a senior programming coordinator.
The society of intellectuals is not something Solinger has any plans to forego in the near future. "I've not thought about retiring," she says. Nor has she thought about training a possible successor.
"I have to be candid," she says, "I think I made the program what it is today." Is she indispensable? "Nobody's entirely indispensable," she replies. "I have a professional staff. Certainly the staff has a lot to do with it. I give Mr. Ripley enormous credit. He really gave this place a soul. The museums we have now, the Hirshhorn, the Air and Space Museum . . . " And what about his successor, Robthusiastic? "I guess so," she says. "I assume so. Well, the new secretary -- it was a week after his new appointment -- he walked into my office anI'm absolutely struck by your program. I think it's wonderful.' I think that's a sign of approbation, don't you?"