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Days at the Museum
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009

With about two-thirds of its money coming from the government, the Smithsonian is in better shape than most cultural institutions, but the economy has taken a toll. There have been layoffs and salary freezes in the past year. Revenue from gift shops and Smithsonian books and magazines is down, as is the institution’s endowment—almost 30 percent from a year and a half ago, to about $756 million.

“The 900-pound gorilla is the economy,” says Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, another museum funded in large part by the federal government.

Powell says he has told Clough, “Be very grateful we’re in Washington.” Despite the economic worries, attendance is up at the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery, possibly because they’re free to visitors. The Smithsonian’s Natural History and Air and Space museums were the most visited museums in the country last year, with about 7 million visitors each, followed by the National Gallery of Art, with about 5 million visitors.

One of the most pressing issues hanging over the Smithsonian is repair of its aging buildings, estimated to cost $2.5 billion. At the Air and Space Museum, for instance, scientist Ted Maxwell wears a jacket in the winter—the heat hasn’t worked in his office for ten years, he says. But raising money to fix a heating-and-cooling system is harder than finding donors for a new exhibit.

Employees have been heartened by Clough’s attention to the Arts and Industries Building, the 1881 red-brick Victorian structure that’s been shuttered since 2004 because of leaks and structural problems. The building, next door to the Castle, will get $4.6 million from the stimulus package for repairs, and Clough has set up committees to study possible uses for the building, the original home of the Smithsonian collection.

Smithsonian curators contend that the scholarly base of the institution has crumbled as much as the physical plant. The loss of about 600 positions over the last ten years has led to “orphan” collections that have no curators, fewer programs to interpret the institution’s work and exhibits, and concern that the knowledge and expertise of a generation of scholars will not be passed on.

“There’s no point in fixing the buildings if they’re going to be empty inside,” says Samper. “It’s not just the collections. It’s having the people to look after the collections. It’s doing educational programs. It’s taking advantage of new technologies. We’re behind the curve.”

Marc Pachter, former National Portrait Gallery director, says the Smithsonian’s programming and scholarly infrastructure flourished in the postwar era, particularly during Ripley’s stewardship, and made the institution more than just a caretaker of objects. “Those are the intangible parts of the Smithsonian,” says Pachter, “not less important but intangible.”

But the Smithsonian’s reality is that its federal subsidy has remained largely flat over the last 20 years while it has piled up more and more facilities to operate and maintain, more functions, as well as salary increases. “It’s like middle-class squeeze at the national institutional level,” says Thomas Lovejoy, a renowned biologist and former Smithsonian official. “In the end, Congress has got to bear a major piece of that responsibility.”

Samper believes that aside from making a better case to Congress, the institution will have to be more aggressive—and at the same time careful—exploring corporate sponsorships and other public/private partnerships.

“I think there are ways to make those partnerships, but you have to do them thoughtfully,” he says, noting that the Smithsonian has gotten into trouble in this area before. In 2007, the American Petroleum Institute rescinded a $5-million gift for the Natural History Museum’s oceans initiative after Smithsonian regents had misgivings about whether oil-company money was appropriate for a marine-science exhibit. And there have been incidents where major donors tried to exert influence on exhibitions.

“The problem is if we want to do a better job with our exhibits, do more interesting research, do more educational programs, it’s going to take more resources,” says Samper. “So then how do we do it?”

To address some of the building and programming needs, Smithsonian officials are preparing to launch the first institution-wide capital campaign.

For now, Clough is traveling the country introducing himself to donors, including those who might help the Smithsonian raise half of the $500 million—with Congress supplying the other half—for the new African-American museum.

“Fundraising is a contact sport,” Clough says. “Somebody has to know you, they have to let you in their living room, they have to trust you, and they have to feel like you have integrity and can represent the institution with appropriate ideas. So a lot of it is establishing that trust base.”

An avid outdoorsman, he says he’ll do “whatever it takes” to get to know potential contributors. In Atlanta, that often meant quail hunting or fishing or playing golf with wealthy Georgia Tech alumni.

In Washington, it often means dinner parties, where he brings in reinforcement. His wife, Anne, he says, is a fundraising pro and the extrovert in the family.

He’s noticed that at Washington dinner parties, counter to custom in the South, spouses are not seated together. “We realized pretty quick that she has to carry her end of the Smithsonian conversation while I carry mine,” says Clough. “We’re always doing a little business.”

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 07/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles