Elizabeth Broun, 69, has been the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its branch museum, the Renwick Gallery, since 1989. She is the longest-serving museum director in the Smithsonian system. The Renwick’s acclaimed exhibit “Wonder” ends July 10.
What was behind the decision to renovate the Renwick? And what do you make of the public’s explosive reaction to the “Wonder” exhibit?
So almost no one just says, “Gosh, I think it would be fun to go renovate a historic building.” You get thrust into it because the building’s systems start to fail. We knew that most of what we did would not be apparent to visitors — infrastructure and heating and air conditioning systems — so we wanted something that would signal: It’s the new Renwick. And the idea of featuring the building, having big artist installations, making people look up rather than down into a case, seemed pleasing. But somehow it’s taken flight in a way that we had not even anticipated in our wildest dreams. We’re still trying to figure out what the pixie dust is.
I was here with my kids recently, and they had a ball rolling on the floor under the Janet Echelman sculpture in the great room.
One of the things I really love about the “Wonder” show is that people instinctively know what to do. You know, we’re not here to say, “Yes, you can lie on the floor.” They just do it. And we’re not here to say, “You can do a yoga move in front of the Tara Donovan.” They just do it. So it’s exciting that people aren’t fearful, they’re not holding back, they’re not scratching their heads going: I don’t know how to relate to this. They’re going, Okay, I know what this piece needs.
If I’ve learned one thing through the “Wonder” show, it’s you can double or triple or quadruple the number of people if you hit it right in the center note. I realize now this is the center of the note.
Does it put pressure on you for the next thing?
Ah, pressure! Yes. [Laughs.] But sometimes we do our best work under pressure. It’s when you feel people are waiting for an answer that you come up with a great one.
You’ve just announced your retirement. Are there parts of the job you’ll be happy to step away from?
I like to say that I’ll be happy to give up the bureaucracy. But in a funny way I’m going to miss that, too. Because all the people in those bureaucratic jobs are very caring about what they do.
And collectively, it’s that sometimes-overwhelming attention to all those issues that makes the Smithsonian this sort of supremely professional place that it is. So now that I see the end of the road in sight, I’m almost coming around to embrace the bureaucracy.
That sounds like nostalgia.
I’m getting closer. I’m not quite there.
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