The Smithsonian announced on Monday that Cornell University President David Skorton will take over the sprawling national research institution next year, replacing retiring Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough. Skorton, a cardiologist by training, will be the first medical doctor to lead the Smithsonian. As a jazz musician—he once accompanied Billy Joel on flute on “She’s Always a Woman” on a Cornell stage—he is just as interested in the institution’s cultural functions as he is in its scientific missions.
Skorton has been the president of Cornell since 2006, following a three-year stint as president of the University of Iowa, where he also taught for 26 years. In his first one-on-one interview since accepting his new job, Skorton tells Washingtonian about his impending move to the nation’s capital, his goals for exercising the Smithsonian’s cultural clout, and his favorite Smithsonian spots, though he hopes his future colleagues, the museum directors, don’t take it personally.
One of the first things people here noticed is that you’re a sometime jazz musician who played with Billy Joel. The Smithsonian’s got a lot of venues, are you going to be able to get Billy Joel to play at one of them?
That’s hilarious. Billy Joel must have lost my cell-phone number. After our performance—which was really just me sitting in on one number—his people never called me to go on tour. On the other hand, I learned that the Smithsonian has its own jazz orchestra.
Are you going to sit in with them?
Well, it wouldn’t be my decision, but if they asked me, I’d at least be there to cheer them on.
For most of your career you’ve been in Iowa City and Ithaca, New York. Are you looking forward to coming to a bigger city?
My wife and I split our time between Ithaca and New York City, though mostly in Ithaca. Cornell has a lot of footprints in Manhattan like the medical college. I’ve gotten a taste of the best of both worlds. A college town with that special culture and somewhat of a medium-size town feel on the one hand, and the attraction and joys of the city on the other.
I’ve also had the privilege of going to Washington many, many times, to Capitol Hill, to the National Institutes of Health, to the American College of Cardiology. I’ve seen from an inexpert perspective the Washington area change and evolve. It’s always been an exciting place to visit. It looks to me it’s an even more exciting place to live—exciting cultural scene, restaurant scene. For decades, I’ve been going to Blues Alley whenever I could spare the time, and now there are other music venues in other parts of the city.
Your name came to the Smithsonian from a head-hunting firm. What got you interested in the job?
Some attributes of the Smithsonian are quite similar to a research university. Both institutions have a lot of creative activity, whether its scientific research or things related to history or arts. Both institutions do education. At the university, it leads to a degree. At the Smithsonian, I’ve seen the literature describing it as “informal education.”
I’ve always been oriented toward public engagement. I worked in the public sector my whole career until the time I came to Cornell. The Smithonian is an enormous public interface. And thanks to Wayne Clough, and his colleagues, that interface has been hugely multiplied by the use of the Internet. As great as it is to be on the Mall, it’s also great to look at these artifacts, objects, and exhibitions online, and now with the 3-D project.
Is there any goal you have in mind for your leadership of the Smithsonian?
I’m just beginning the formal learning curve, but I do have two overarching ideas I’d like to share. I think most people not involved with the Smithsonian—and I put myself in that category right now—think about the museums and the galleries and the zoo and the website and the magazines as the Smithsonian, and tend not think about the people behind the scenes who are doing the research—the Tropical Research Institute, the Observatory Project, the curators and conservators who are behind the scenes. I hope to be able to shine a light on them, partly for recognition, and partly so they can express their own thought leadership, to use a cliche.
Broader than that, I hope the Smithsonian’s large presence in Washington will be translatable to a convening power. [I hope] the other cultural institutions in Washington can somehow come together as leaders and get the message across that the country needs to focus on a broad sweep of considerations, in education and in solving its thorniest problems.
You said you believe there’s too much of a focus on the STEM fields.
Of course you have to have an emphasis on math and science, and that’s been my whole career. But if you do that alone, without thinking about the detailed aspects of ethics and history and culture, things just don’t go as well as they might. And I think that’s true in a lot of endeavors. When we talk about winning the hearts and minds of people outside the United States, whether they are friends or people with whom we have challenging relationships, it’s understanding culture that makes the difference.
Is there a museum or exhibit you’re particularly drawn to, either as a tourist or scientist?
Over the decades, if I don’t have a lot of time, I’ve tended to go to the Sackler and Freer. I’ve had the privilege of working with colleagues in many parts of Asia over my higher-ed career and developed an interest in Asian art.
Having said that, my very first exposure, when I was a kid, was to the Natural History Museum, and Air and Space is close to my heart in part because Cornell was one of the leaders of the Mars Rover project. I like all those places, but if you really push me, I’ll say my favorite is the Sackler-Freer. But maybe you don’t have to let the other directors know.
The University of Maryland it was still on track to enter a partnership with the Corcoran yesterday, until administrators got a call from the DC arts institution saying the engagement was off in favor of a plan to join up with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University instead, the school’s president, Wallace Loh, writes in an email to his faculty and staff.
In the email, obtained by Washingtonian, Loh writes that UMD officials met with the Corcoran as recently as two weeks ago to continue hammering out the details of an arrangement the two institutions. The sides met last December, with UMD proposing “shared decision-making and shared responsibilities” for managing the Corcoran’s gallery and art school and that it would front most of estimated $130 million to renovate the Corcoran’s Beaux Arts landmark building.
Loh also writes that since last summer, several of UMD’s academic deans consulted the Corcoran on a pro bono basis. But UMD’s involvement wasn’t entirely free-of-cost, he says, with the university hiring consultants and lawyers of its own for advice on how a potential merger would navigate federal, Maryland, and District law.
“Any due diligence on any potential project—whether it is eventually successful or not—costs money to perform: personnel salaries, external consultants’ fees, etc.,” Loh tells Washingtonian in an email. “These are the usual costs of doing business.”
But Loh says he found out abruptly. “It was a short phone call,” he writes. “They said they were going to ‘partner’ with NGA and GWU. I learned the details about this ‘partnership’ from reading the newspapers.”
According to the Corcoran’s new arrangement, which it aims to formalize by April, the 145-year-old institution will be largely dismantled, with the NGA taking over the 17,000-piece collection and GWU absorbing the art school and moving into the building, a small part of which will remain open to the public as an NGA modern art exhibit.
“We are, of course, disappointed that the Corcoran will be no more,” Loh writes in his faculty email. “In the end, not all courtships are destined to end in marriage.”
Read Loh's faculty email in full:
Dear faculty and staff:
As you know by now, the Corcoran (Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design) announced yesterday that its functions would be taken over, respectively, by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, should the parties reach agreement on the details. According to the Washington Post, the 174-year old Corcoran will then cease to exist as an independent institution.
In April 2013, I informed you that UMD would explore a partnership with the Corcoran on ways to preserve, and transform, the Gallery and the College as a single entity. Our mutual goal was an artistic, educational, and scholarly collaboration among equals that would benefit the students and faculty of both institutions. We would sponsor joint arts and culture programming for the Washington community and the state of Maryland. With this partnership, UMD would also gain access to a landmark building, across from the White House, to magnify our presence in the nation's capital.
Over the summer, an 18-member task force of UMD faculty, staff, and administrators worked together with their Corcoran counterparts on how they could bring together art and science, technology and design, and education and scholarship, to spark innovation.
We met with directors of art museums from around the country, and with presidents of art colleges from around the world, to get their perspectives on how UMD-Corcoran might best thrive. We retained consultants on art museums and professional art schools. We sought counsel on the complexities of Federal, Maryland, and District of Columbia law and how to structure the proposed partnership.
We talked with several universities in the U.S. and Europe that had successfully partnered with professional art schools. The main lesson we learned was that it took at least one year -- often two or more years -- of conversations for these institutions to complete such a devilishly complex transaction, because it blends organizations of different scales and cultures.
We did comprehensive analyses of the budgets, management decisions, capital renovation needs, and fund-raising performance of the Corcoran. We made multi-year projections -- with the input of Corcoran staff -- on what it would take to turn around the Corcoran's finances and operations. We met with former supporters of the Corcoran, and potential new donors, to gauge their interest in re-engaging or engaging with the Corcoran if it partnered with UMD.
We sought feedback from our stakeholders. We met with senior elected officials, as well as community and business leaders, in Maryland and in Washington, D.C.; with faculty, staff, students, and University Senate leaders; and with alumni representatives and friends of UMD. We garnered majority support for this joint venture with the Corcoran.
Since last summer, at the request of the Corcoran, some of our academic deans and professional staff have worked on a pro bono basis to assist and/or consult with their Corcoran counterparts on admissions, enrollment, registration, information technology, and marketing and communications.
A special committee of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents, as well as the USM Chancellor and his staff, oversaw and assisted in our due diligence. We appreciate their engagement and support.
Throughout this process, we stayed in continuing communication with the Corcoran. In December 2013, we formally proposed the following:
-- A true partnership (a "99-year marriage" of equals) with shared decision-making and shared responsibilities for co-management of the Gallery and the College under the continued auspices of the Corcoran trustees;
-- Immediate and substantial funding to erase Corcoran's persisting operating deficits;
-- Underwriting a substantial share of the cost of renovating the iconic Flagg building;
-- Joint fundraising to cover the balance of the renovation costs, with UMD providing the fundraising personnel and expertise that Corcoran currently lacks;
-- Professional and management expertise to help carry out needed administrative efficiencies at the Corcoran;
-- Future investments to grow the programming at the Corcoran, including hiring of a world-class museum director and a distinguished college president, each reporting to separate boards of the Corcoran.
Two weeks ago, we had a cordial and productive discussion with Corcoran trustees on aspects of our proposal. We were awaiting Corcoran's written response when they called us yesterday, shortly before their announcement that the Gallery and the College would be taken over separately.
We are, of course, disappointed that the Corcoran will be no more. We understand that a partnership is harder than a takeover, involving mutual and ongoing obligations and risks as well as potential. In the end, not all courtships are destined to end in marriage. We wish NGA and GWU well as they keep alive the venerable name and legacy of the Corcoran.
To our UMD colleagues and friends, thank you for all your steadfast dedication, work, and support for this attempted partnership and for the excellence of our state's flagship university.
The University of Maryland continues on its upward trajectory as a front-rank research institution propelled by STEAM -- science, technology, engineering, ARTS, and mathematics. We will continue to explore partnerships with arts organizations to further advance the eminence and impact of our arts and humanities programs.
Wallace D. Loh
President, University of Maryland
Nearly a century-and-a-half after it opened as Washington’s first private art museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its accompanying college are being parceled out to the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, as the Corcoran can no longer support itself as an independent organization.
The three institutions announced an agreement today in which the NGA will take over the Corcoran’s 17,000-piece collection while GWU will absorb the art and design school and take over the iconic Beaux Arts building on 17th St., Northwest. Although the Corcoran’s interim director, Peggy Loar, describes the transition in an announcement as “wonderful news,” it punctuates a financial decline for the long-struggling museum.
The Corcoran has been hemmoraging at least $7 million a year for several years on a budget of roughly $30 million. And its building, which opened in 1897, needs an estimated $130 million in repairs, although GWU President Steven Knapp tells the Washington Post he believes that assessment is high. The Corcoran had previously explored a partnership with the University of Maryland.
While the Corcoran’s students will remain in the building it and their school become parts of GWU, museum visitors will see even bigger changes. After it takes over the collection, the NGA will present modern art exhibits in the Corcoran building, but under the name “Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art.” It will also stage exhibits of older work from the Corcoran’s collection. Admission to the galleries will be free, but the museum experience seems destined to be pared down.
But other works from the Corcoran may wind up with the National Gallery. While they’d be labeled as coming from the private collection, the merger announced today hints that one of the Corcoran’s defining qualities—promoting local art like last year’s “Pump Me Up” showcase of DC’s 1980s subcultures—will fade.
“The Corcoran’s great cultural, educational, and civic resources, which are at the heart of this city, will not only remain in Washington but will become stronger, more exciting, and more widely accessible, in a way that stays centered on the Corcoran’s dedication to art and mission of encouraging American genius and opens the galleries to all for free,” Loar says in her announcement.
The deal needs to be approved by the boards of trustees of all three institutions by April 7. As for the entity known as Corcoran, it will continue as a non-profit organization that will advise the NGA and GWU on their new stewardship of the museum and college.
What’s even more rare at the National Zoo than the arrival of a new giant panda cub? How about the birth of a gray seal? The zoo welcomed its first seal pup in 23 years on January 21 when Kara, a 30-year-old seal, gave birth to a female pup in the American Trail exhibit.
The newborn pup, which came out at 35 pounds, is being hand-fed, the zoo says, because Kara cannot produce enough milk.
“In the first days of this pup’s life we did not see her gain as much weight as we would have expected. It is still a tenuous time, but the pup’s weight is now heading in the right direction,” says Ed Bronikowski, a senior curator at the National Zoo. “We celebrate every pound that she gains.”
By Bronikowski’s logic, the zoo’s staff has had nine weight-gain parties, with the pup now coming in at 44 pounds. The zoo says that while Kara has trouble lactating, she is attentive to the newborn pup. The pair swim in holding pool and nap on a beach. The two specimens will join four other gray seals and two harbor seals on view in the American Trail exhibit in the spring.
Believe it or not, the National Zoo actually has news about some of the non-panda species under its protection. The zoo welcomed two African lion cubs on Friday morning when Nababiep, a ten-year-old lioness, went into labor.
Nababiep delivered three cubs, although the middle one was stillborn, the zoo says. "The first few days of a lion cub’s life are very fragile," Rebecca Stiles, an animal keeper in the zoo's Great Cats exhibit, says in a Smithsonian press release. African lions have a mortality rate of about 30 percent in captivity, compared with 67 percent in the wild.
The zoo took little time in switching on two live camera feeds for animal lovers to gawk at Nababiep and the newborn litter. The lions won't go back on public display until late spring, but already the cubs can be seen scampering about their den and playing with each other.
The dinosaurs are going away again, but this time it’s not because of an asteroid strike. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History announced that its dinosaur hall—one of the marquee attractions at the world’s second-most-visited museum—will close through 2019 as it undergoes a massive renovation.
The 31,000-square-foot exhibit will close April 28, taking away from public view most of the museum’s fossil collections. A smaller, temporary exhibit, “The Last American Dinosaurs: Discovering a Lost World,” will open to showcase a selection of artifacts from the Cretaceous period.
When the main dinosaur exhibit reopens, its centerpiece will be a near-complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton unearthed in Montana in 1988. The T-rex will be delivered to the Smithsonian in April. (It was originally supposed to be shipped last October, but then the government shut down.) A metal cast of the T-rex’s skull went on display in the musuem’s lobby this week.
The dinosaur hall’s renovation will take five years because many of its displays, including the 90-foot Diplodocus that currently anchors the exhibit, will need to be disassembled. The project will cost $48 million, of which $35 million is coming from the billionaire industrialist David Koch, who is so wealthy he probably could build a real-life Jurassic Park instead.
An local group of science fiction fans launched a crowdfunding campaign today for what would likely be the area’s nerdiest museum. If they are successful, the planned Museum of Science Fiction would open in a temporary gallery in 2014, and begin searching for permanent quarters.
“We want to use it as an educational facilty to teach kids about the science, technology, engineering, and math fields and the arts,” Greg Viggiano, a product management executive and aspiring screenwriter, tells Washingtonian. “Science fiction is a perfect vehicle to do that. We could probably sneak in some educational components.”
How do you make a portrait of a city—its industries, residents, nuances, trends, and sense of purpose? “The Network,” a groundbreaking video portrait being unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery on December 11, tries to encapsulate modern Washington in a single cutting-edge work. Chicago multimedia artist Lincoln Schatz has been working on the project for four years, interviewing 89 Washingtonians, each representing a sphere of influence.
The list is a who’s who spanning politics, media, law, science, the military, arts, and sports. Schatz filmed Internet pioneer and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis describing his interests in technology and literature; Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser talking about how his grandfather, a New York Philharmonic violinist, fostered his love of the arts; and former undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy discussing the ways she thinks the George W. Bush administration flouted the rule of law.
Schatz—whose fascination with Washington started when he arrived here at age 19 to intern for Senator Ted Kennedy—also interviewed some of the most powerful people in government, from Eric Cantor and Nancy Pelosi to Ray LaHood and Barney Frank. The first challenge, Schatz says, was “trying to figure out who the portrait should be of.” He did the natural Washington thing: hired a pollster to research who was most widely regarded as influential. The answers? Mostly Barack Obama.
Next, Schatz made a list of names of people high up in the federal workforce, but the sheer scale of it made him queasy. So he started with a core of people he dubbed the “seed group” and asked them for recommendations. One of the most responsive was Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, who called Schatz so regularly that Schatz’s wife started telling the artist his “boyfriend” was on the phone.
Before filming his subjects, Schatz set about researching their histories, reading books they’d written, looking for interviews they’d done, trying to ascertain key moments in their lives and their main achievements.
During Schatz’s interviews, the subjects were filmed by three cameras, and the topics they discussed were sorted and tagged into more than 9,000 video files. When the work is displayed, it randomly selects a segment of one person discussing an issue, then segues to another person talking about the same thing.
Schatz recalls being surprised when the software presented National Rifle Association president David A. Keene immediately followed by Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock. They were paired because both spent time talking passionately about freedom.
The portrait itself constantly recalibrates, presenting people in different order. “You can tell a story a lot of ways, and by changing the order you can change the story significantly,” says Schatz. “I want this piece to offer a different way of understanding these people.”
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.
The “Lincoln table” is an important historical artifact and has played a role in three inaugurations: It held President Abraham Lincoln’s bible and glass of water during his second inaugural in 1865, was used by President Ronald Reagan in his second inauguration in 1985, and was placed in Statuary Hall for President Barack Obama’s first inaugural luncheon four years ago. But it has a little known and interesting backstory.
The iron table has a wooden top and was made in the early 1860s especially for Lincoln by B.B. French, Washington’s commissioner of public buildings, who used three pieces of cast iron from the Capitol Dome. It is owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. “It is unique, and there probably will never be another like it in the world,” French wrote in a letter dated 1866.
For his second inauguration, according to a source who knows the story, Reagan asked that the table be brought down from Boston, and it was. But the junior staffer who received the table wasn’t impressed. “He thought it looked dingy, and spray-painted it white,” our source said. The folks at MHS “had a heart attack.”
The table has since been restored and is on loan to the Capitol Visitors Center, where, according to our source, “if you look closely you can still see a few specks of white paint.”
We phoned Carol Knauff at the Massachusetts Historical Society to find out whether the staff person who handled the Reagan loan was available to recall the incident. She checked and replied by e-mail: “The gentlemen in leadership positions at the MHS at the time of President Reagan’s second inauguration are no longer here so we cannot confirm the story or any reaction to the story.”