Just last Thursday the Senate, at the instigation of Iowa’s non-profit-institution-spanking Sen. Charles Grassley, voted to freeze a $17 million budget increase for the Smithsonian as a way to create pressure for reform in the operations of the office of Lawrence M. Small, the high living ex-banker who is the Smithsonian’s Secretary. Or was. Yesterday Small demonstrated in the only way that counts that he got the message.
So Small is gone, but the investigations spurred by his management practices are still gearing up. Meanwhile, his departure may mean a chance for some fresh thinking at the Smithsonian, a national museum that seems forever unsure how to play that role. For years I’ve travelled frequently in Canada to review shows there. I’ve always been struck by how the National Gallery of Canada, based in Ottawa, operates as a kind of mother ship, sending out exhibitions to museums all around the country. And I always wondered why the Smithsonian couldn’t perform the same function in the U.S., especially for smaller institutions that don’t have the kind of permanent collection that gives them leverage to be included on the touring circuit of big loan shows from other museums. Why not get that ball rolling now? Tyler Green makes a similar suggestion today.
Advice to Cristian Samper, the new acting Secretary of the Smithsonian — how about a phone call to Pierre Theberge, director of the National Gallery, to pick his brain? ( I know the Smithsonian is feeling squeezed these days, but on most calling plans rates are low after 5 PM. )