Small Leaves Smithsonian Amid Criticism

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/9151771/9151772" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

Lawrence Small resigns after seven years at the head of the Smithsonian Institution. He was admired for his fundraising skills, but recently was accused by critics of mishandling Smithsonian funds, allegedly to support a lavish lifestyle.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Smithsonian Institution is looking for a new secretary to replace Lawrence Small. His resignation was announced yesterday. Lawrence Small led the institution for seven years. He's recently been under attack for what some consider a lavish lifestyle at the Smithsonian's expense.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: NPR interviewed Lawrence Small in 1999 just before he became secretary.

Mr. LAWRENCE SMALL (Former Secretary, Smithsonian Institution): I think there are a lot of very, very smart people at the Smithsonian, but I don't think that the Smithsonian has a monopoly on intelligence, thoughtfulness or knowledge.

BLAIR: Lawrence Small is well-traveled and urbane. He loves art and flamenco guitar. He was also the first secretary of the Smithsonian who was not a scholar. Before taking a massive pay cut to lead the institution, Small had a successful career as a corporate executive at Citicorp/Citibank and Fannie Mae. Small came to an organization that had seen its share of controversy, like that which erupted over the World War II Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum that drew fire from Congress for being anti-American. Mister Small told NPR he was in favor of academic freedom, but...

Mr. SMALL: I think that it's simply naive to think that if you have an institution that's almost three-quarters funded by the Congress of the United States and you're based in Washington, D.C. - a few blocks away from the Congress - that you could engage in a highly controversial activity and not have a great deal of pressure on you from some quarters.

BLAIR: That statement was to prove prophetic. In the past few months, Lawrence Small has felt the pressure of congressional scrutiny. An internal audit in January found that he had racked up some $90,000 in unauthorized expenses. Even the authorized expenses seemed outrageous - $160,000 for the redecoration of his office, and more than a million dollars for the use of his home for official functions. The receipts included chandelier cleaning and servicing his backyard swimming pool.

Small's critics say there's a disconnect between the corporate world that he came from, where huge salaries and private jet travel are the norm, and the nonprofit world of the Smithsonian. And there were other tensions.

Roger Atwood writes for the magazine ARTnews.

Mr. ROGER ATWOOD (Writer, ARTnews Magazine): He was very aggressive about courting major donors and then renaming buildings and galleries after large donors and corporations. I think that people thought that an institution that's been funded mostly by American taxpayers, people thought that was a little tacky.

BLAIR: Small's defenders point out that during his tenure, two major new facilities opened: the Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center and the Museum of the American Indian. He also directed the $280 million renovation of the portrait and American art museums that resulted in the Donald Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Frank Daniels is a generous donor and former chair of the Smithsonian's National Board. He says the place was close to being dysfunctional before Small got there. Daniels says Small improved communications between the institution's 19 museums and galleries, and he was a great fundraiser. He brought in more than a billion dollars in private donations.

Mr. FRANK DANIELS (Former Chairman, Smithsonian National Board): The main thing was that he institutionalized fundraising in much the same sense that universities do. And the realization that Congress is not likely to give the Smithsonian enough money for it to be the first-class world museum that it ought to be.

BLAIR: Seventy percent of the Smithsonian's budget comes from federal tax dollars. In the coming months, the institution will have to convince Congress that it's on the path to better fiscal responsibility. And find a new secretary who can both bring in the bucks and reassure the curators, researchers and the public that the Smithsonian will live up to its role as the country's premier cultural institution.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.