Smithsonian Board of Regents public meeting coverage by New York Times

Dear Coalition Friends:

The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as AP, have stories about the Smithsonian Board of Regents public meeting this past Monday.  It was an interesting question and answer session in which most of the Regents took active part.  This was the first public meeting in the Smithsonian’s 162 year history and will not be the last as Regents respond to past controversies with a dedication to greater transparency.

The end of the Times piece mentions the question I asked about the Smithsonian potentially dedicating a portion of the now-mothballed Arts & Industries Building for a National Mall (and Washington region) Visitors Center, an idea our National Coalition to Save Our Mall has been promoting for several years and which has strong support from local groups.  The response from Regents was very positive and encouraging.  According to Smithsonian Secretary Clough, a report of potential uses of the A&I Building will be completed in January.

The Times piece is the most comprehensive so we include it below.  Here are links to the stories in the Post and from AP in The Washington Times.


At Meeting, Smithsonian Practices New Openness

November 18, 2008

WASHINGTON — Fielding questions about its diminished endowment fund, the possibility of charging admission fees and the fate of its fabled yet shuttered Arts and Industries Building, the Smithsonian Institution held the first public board meeting in its 162-year history on Monday as part of its new commitment to openness and accountability. Sitting on the stage of a 565-seat auditorium at the institution’s National Museum of Natural History, members of the governing body, or Board of Regents — including members of Congress — took questions from the audience present and online.

The two-hour meeting was a window on public concerns about the Smithsonian’s shaky financial state and potentially endangered programs, rather than merely a forum for combative accusations after two tumultuous years in which the institution has been battered by mismanagement scandals. Museumgoers and Smithsonian staff members had the opportunity to ask whatever they wanted about the organization’s operations and direction.

Although billed as an open board meeting, the session seemed more like a chance for the regents to hear from the public than for the public to observe the regents at work. Questions ranged from broad issues like the thrust of the Smithsonian’s new strategic planning initiative, intended to draft a course of action for the institution’s financial future and its programs, to whether a tram might be built at the National Zoo.

There were nonetheless more challenging moments.

“Why did you not all resign?” was the first question, submitted on a card by an audience member. It referred to the Board of Regents’ decision to stay on after revelations about the lavish expense-account spending of Lawrence M. Small, the Smithsonian’s former secretary, or chief executive, who resigned in March 2007.

Roger W. Sant, chairman of the Smithsonian’s executive committee, replied that the regents had asked themselves, “Do we resign, or do we roll up our sleeves — and we chose the latter.”

The question that drew one of the most emphatic responses from the regents concerned the viability of the Smithsonian’s policy of free admission at all of its components, which include 19 museums and galleries, the zoo and 9 research centers. The Smithsonian draws 70 percent of its $1 billion annual budget from the federal government.

One written comment suggested that “the luxury of free admission must be a thing of the past.” The audience booed.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and a Smithsonian regent, called the admission policy “one of the great hallmarks” of the institution.

Calling attention to the Smithsonian’s unusual governance structure was the scheduled role of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who serves as the Smithsonian’s chancellor and traditionally presides over board meetings. At the last minute the chief justice was unable to attend and Mr. Sant presided instead. “We’ve been trying to do some fixing,” Mr. Sant said upon opening the meeting. “The board views this meeting as an opportunity to directly engage with all of you about the issues facing the Smithsonian.”

Many questions were answered by G. Wayne Clough, the former president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who took over in July as the Smithsonian’s secretary.

He faces the task of restoring stability to an institution struggling with a $2.5 billion shortfall, crumbling buildings and a recent legacy of improprieties by leading Smithsonian executives. “We believe the Smithsonian is at a turning point,” he said in his opening remarks. “The world is rapidly changing in so many ways.”

Like other organizations, the Smithsonian has been seriously affected by the nation’s economic downturn; the value of its endowment has dropped 21 percent since June. “Of course we can’t predict the future,” Dr. Clough said, “but we can prepare for it.”

He said the Smithsonian had “to find ways to be more self-reliant.” The institution raised $135.6 million last year, he said, an improvement on its goal of $115 million.

The developer and philanthropist Eli Broad, who serves as a regent, said the board had become more conservative about its investments.

The organization has also raised $400,000 toward the $1.3 million cost of its strategic planning effort, Dr. Clough said. But he said that fund-raising was not enough and that the institution needed to set about attracting a younger and more diverse work force and audience.

Dr. Clough said he had established a committee to ensure that executives at the institution — including regents, staff members and contractors — reflected the nation’s ethnic diversity. “The Smithsonian is the treasure of America and it represents America,” he said. “Therefore its Board of Regents should as well.”

Several of the questions dealt with the Smithsonian’s neo-Classical 1881 Arts and Industries Building, which has been closed for four years and is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the nation’s most endangered places because of its state of disrepair.

Dr. Clough said that the cost of repairs had been estimated at about $75 million and that the Smithsonian would conclude a study on its future use in January. One member of the audience suggested setting aside part of the building as an information center for all the institutions on the National Mall.

The Board of Regents plans to hold open meetings at least once a year. The next one is expected in June. Mr. Sant said the board might adjust the format in the future.

“We don’t have it exactly right,” he said. “But at least we’re trying to tinker with it.”


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