The Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents yesterday picked Lawrence M. Small, the president of Fannie Mae and an art collector and passionate flamenco guitarist in his spare time, to become the new secretary of the world's largest museum complex.

The regents, a 17-member governing body led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, voted unanimously to give Small, 59, the top job. He takes over in January from I. Michael Heyman, 69, who is retiring after holding the post for the past five years.

After a news conference in the sun-dappled garden behind the Smithsonian's landmark Castle on the Mall, Small said that now he can pursue his hobby of being a museum consumer. "I have been in the corporate world for 35 years, and one of the strategies I followed very aggressively is to make sure I get everything I needed to do done during the week so my wife and I could come to places like this on the weekend," he said. "Now I will get to do it during the week. To be in a position for the first time in my life where a good deal of the areas of focus of this institution constitute my hobbies -- anthropology, art, language -- it couldn't be more exciting."

The regents clearly wanted a person with management savvy rather than primarily academic credentials. They got that in Small, who will be leaving Fannie Mae, the nation's largest investor in home mortgages, after holding the second highest post there since September 1991. Before coming to Washington, the native New Yorker worked at Citicorp/Citibank for 27 years, rising to the dual offices of vice chairman and chairman of the executive committee of the board of directors.

Officials at the Smithsonian said yesterday that Small's proven ability to lead a complex organization and his skills at team-building particularly impressed them.

"His vision of the Smithsonian, his vision of the future, his vision of the changes going on in American society and how they impact our great icon of a cultural institution are inspiring," said Barber Conable, chairman of the regents' executive committee and former president of the World Bank. Conable said the search committee considered at least 250 names.

"Larry is described by many who have worked with him as being one of the finest managers in America. We are talking about an individual that manages by reputation in a way that suits our circumstances, in a collegial fashion, a good listener, someone who works with his people to create the right kind of environment for them, and then to empower them to be all they can be," said regent Wesley Williams Jr., a Washington attorney. Williams chaired the search committee with former senator Howard Baker.

Small moves from managing the day-to-day operations of one of the nation's largest financial services companies to running the world's biggest museum complex.

Small, like Heyman (who is a lawyer), is not a scientist, something that was once considered almost a requirement for the Smithsonian's chief. Small has a degree in Spanish literature from Brown University.

The Smithsonian encompasses 16 museums, the National Zoo and numerous research facilities involved in subjects as varied as plant biology and astrophysics. The complex receives $412 million of its $570 million annual budget from Congress, which keeps a watchful eye on all levels of decision-making.

Operating the Smithsonian, therefore, requires a deft political touch.

Heyman was brought in after the Smithsonian was attacked in 1994 by members of Congress and veterans groups who objected to the narrative of a World War II exhibit that they said was more sympathetic to Japanese interests than to American soldiers. The original exhibition at the Air and Space Museum was scrubbed, and later a different text accompanied the display of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

And last year a series of lectures marking Israel's 50th anniversary was denounced by lawmakers and others who said the speaking list contained too many of that country's critics. The Smithsonian's co-sponsor of the series, the liberal New Israel Fund, was dropped, and the lecture program was revamped to feature largely mainstream diplomats and scholars. In the most recent contretemps, animal rights activists forced the museum to cancel a symposium on pa^te, arguing that fowl are often mistreated in the manufacture of the delicacy.

Small said yesterday that controversy will probably always be present in an operation as large and multifaceted as the Smithsonian's but said he has had plenty of practice at crisis management. At Citicorp, Small recalled, the company had 100,000 employees in 100 countries and he "had to deal with clashes of diverse cultures, problems with countries going bankrupt and owing you money, and then having to reconcile that with the foreign policy of the United States, having to deal with kidnappings of employees, terrorist attacks on branches. I would say I have had very substantial experience with crises that go beyond some of the things that have happened here."

James A. Johnson, the former Fannie Mae chairman who now runs the Kennedy Center, recalled that Small was particularly skillful at understanding the issue of diversity. "He is a person of integrity and values. He has this wonderful feel for our country, and he was active in dealing with the Hispanic community, all around the country, as we were trying to shape our strategy of diversity and involving communities," Johnson said. Questions about the inclusion of Latino personnel, art and history, as well as African American themes, have dogged the Smithsonian for years.

Franklin Raines, the current chairman of Fannie Mae, said Small's management style is far from the military notion of command and control: "He can operationalize aspirations. We aspired to be a leader in diversity, and Larry says, `That's great, and let's get about doing it. Let's measure, let's make sure people's compensation is tied to it.' He makes the aspirations into reality."

The Smithsonian job is certainly one of the most visible in Washington but is also a platform for leadership throughout the museum and science community. The secretary is guardian of a brand name that almost everyone recognizes. Surveys show that more than half of all Americans have visited a Smithsonian museum.

One of Small's first duties will be to finish planning for a unprecedented fund-raising campaign that could take in nearly $1 billion, according to Smithsonian sources.

Small's predecessor, Heyman, restored the credibility of the Smithsonian on Capitol Hill and worked tirelessly to take it "off the Mall" through a series of affiliation agreements with other museums, by sending some of the institution's treasures on a two-year tour of the country and by exploring partnerships with filmmakers. The national tour was popular with the public, but its fund-raising effort fell short by millions that had to be borrowed from the Smithsonian endowment. Still, the museum complex has continued to receive multi-million-dollar donations, including $10 million from Ralph Lauren last year to help repair one of its signature holdings, the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 and inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The Smithsonian museums along the Mall remain among the nation's top tourist destinations, with attendance reaching 31 million last year. The institution's collections include more than 140 million items, ranging from Judy Garland's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" to a 3.5-billion-year-old fossil to an Apollo lunar lander. Small said yesterday that one of his goals would be to "dramatically expand the number of lives touched by the Smithsonian" through technology and other kinds of outreach.

Small has a broad portfolio of ties to financial, educational and cultural organizations. He has been on the board of Morehouse College for 25 years, and has also served on the boards of Brown University, Marriott Corp., Chubb Insurance, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Building Museum, the Spanish Repertory Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet. He has been married 31 years to Sandra Small, a Spanish-English interpreter in the federal court system. Small himself is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and French. The Smalls have two college-age children and collect art from the rain forest regions of South America, Africa and Oceania.