In his first interview as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, David Skorton forcefully defended the decision by National Museum of African Art Director Johnnetta Cole not to close the exhibition featuring works from Bill Cosby’s collection, even after widespread allegations of sexual assault were made against the comedian.
Skorton acknowledged the risks of the decision and that it could hurt the Smithsonian’s reputation.
“If a person strongly disagrees, I believe it will change that person’s view of the Smithsonian, but I believe taking down an exhibition will tarnish our reputation among museum professionals and others,” he said. “Creative activity of any kind can generate controversy. We will from time to time get beat up about some of these things.”
The exhibition, which opened in November 2014 and is scheduled to continue through January, marks the first crisis of his brief tenure. The decision to keep it on view was still being discussed after he arrived in July, he said. “It wasn’t ignored; it wasn’t ‘Who cares what the public thinks,’ not at all,” he said. Still, he declined to criticize Cole for her failure to address questions about it. (Her first public comment came in August in an article she wrote for an online magazine.)
“I believe in the underlying principle of more openness, more sunshine,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, on my watch, what I have seen Johnnetta Cole do is be concerned about it, listen to people and write a carefully crafted piece that laid out her argument.”
The Cosby controversy was one of several topics addressed by Skorton, the former president of Cornell University who succeeded G. Wayne Clough, another university president, who stepped down in December after seven years at the Smithsonian.
Clough’s tenure was marked by growth in the institution’s digital presence but marred by his decision to pull a work from the 2010 exhibition “Hide/Seek” at the National Portrait Gallery. That choice was met with widespread disapproval and charges of censorship, charges that Skorton seems to want to avoid.
“As an overriding principle, we have to avoid censorship,” said Skorton, 65. “I am very much against taking down an exhibition once it has opened.”
In conversation, the 13th Smithsonian secretary comes across as everyone’s favorite professor, the teacher who makes his students feel smart and whose impressive vocabulary is balanced by a playful demeanor. Though he’s a board-certified cardiologist who will be a distinguished professor at Georgetown University, he exudes a neighborly persona.
“If I can just digress for a second, and how are you going to stop me?” he said with smiling eyes as he launched into a tangent. He delivered a pitch-perfect “whatever” to his publicist when she tried to correct a minor point, and he referred to himself as “this doc” on several occasions. He frequently prefaced answers with “forgive me if you know this already,” a practiced way of offering information without seeming to lecture.
The scientist is also a musician. Skorton plays the flute and loves music and poetry. He has established a poem of the week — placing a new work on a lectern in his outer office at the Smithsonian Castle every Monday — and said one of his first priorities is to focus on the arts and humanities.
“Too often, some of us think of them as frills — nice to have but not really needed,” he said. “I don’t agree with that. I think our understanding of ourselves and the world around us is intimately tied to the humanities and the arts.”
The Smithsonian’s staff, Skorton said, is another priority. Like other nonprofits, the Smithsonian weathered the recent recession in part through hiring freezes and attrition.
“The art of leading a place like this is to find the optimal balance between the stuff and the people. I think visitors to the Smithsonian think more about the stuff. They come to see the stuff and be amazed by the exhibitions,” he said. “Some of my work in terms of fundraising is the renewal of the workforce.”
Skorton also plans to create a youth council of high school students from the District and the region, and he wants to engage the local community more directly.
The Smithsonian — which operates on a $1.3 billion annual budget and has 6,500 employees at 19 museums, numerous research centers and a zoo — is actually smaller than Cornell, but the two institutions share many traits. They are decentralized organizations with a broad range of fields, funded with public money and private donations, and have many projects going on at once.
“If we don’t have a lot of balls in the air, if there’s not a certain amount of chaos, we’re not doing our job,” Skorton said. “We don’t want to be staid. We want to be dynamic. We want to think about our future relevance.”
Among the Smithsonian’s largest projects is the partnership with a London developer to open its first exhibition space outside the United States. “I’m not a betting man, but if I were to predict I would say we will end up doing this,” he said.
Skorton said he supports the master plan proposed in November last year for the Castle and surrounding buildings — a 20-year project to renovate and restore the historic structure and improve the visitor experience — but he directed specific questions about the plan to his chief financial officer. He acknowledged that the surprisingly expensive renovation of the National Air and Space Museum, with a price tag of about $575 million, presents both fundraising and logistical challenges. Raising money for deferred maintenance is difficult, as is repairing the mechanical systems and facade without closing the popular facility.
The secretary spoke effusively about the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, which could open as early as September next year, depending on the availability of President Obama, who attended the groundbreaking and has repeatedly stated his wish to open the latest museum on the Mall.
“We’re on track in fundraising, in construction, in hiring individuals who will make this thing sing,” Skorton said of the $540 million museum. The federal government has paid half, and the museum is close to raising the balance in private donations.
Skorton said his first months have been dedicated to learning about the institution and pulling together a team to help him.
“Here’s the secret: I can’t do it all myself. I have really smart people; the team is really fantastic,” he said. “The trick is to listen and not assume that because I have this big title I know more.”