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Equal Time: Successor to Retiring Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough Should Be an Art Professional

Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Photo by Carl C. Hansen, Smithsonian

Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Carl C. Hansen, Smithsonian

Enough with all these scientists!

With 10 of its 15 museums focused on art, design and/or culture (and with one of those institutions—the in-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture—slated to become the next addition to the Smithsonian empire in 2015), the Smithsonian owes it to its own constituents and to its culturally-oriented visitors to choose Secretary Wayne Clough‘s successor from the ranks of art scholars. The Smithsonian’s art museums have never had one of their own in the institution’s top spot.

Clough today announced plans to retire in October 2014 after more six years in the post, leaving plenty of time for the search committee and the Russell Reynolds Associates search firm to find a distinguished replacement.

Other major art-related developments in the works, which I’d like to see supervised by a culturally-savvy Secretary, include the complete renovation of the Renwick Gallery, to commence next year, and the reopening next year of the Cooper Hewitt in New York, after its extensive renovation and gallery expansion.

I think it’s a big mistake to judge Clough’s tenure (as at least one member of the Twitterati has done) on basis of his ham-fisted handling of the “Hide/Seek” mess at the National Portrait Gallery. And his decision to retire at the age of 73 surely has nothing whatsoever to do with the fallout from that painful 2010 controversy. Another art-related debacle was the misguided-from-the-start, now scuttled plan to install an expensive, inflatable, 145-foot-tall temporary meeting hall (“the Bubble”) in the cavity of the Hirshhorn Museum’s doughnut-shaped structure.

My guess is that Clough may be tiring of the constant uncertainty over the amount of funding that can (or can’t) be counted upon from a Federal government that is again teetering on the brink of default on its debts and even facing the possibility of a government shutdown unless our dysfunctional Congress can get its act together before next month’s debt-ceiling deadline. The Smithsonian has already suffered some unanticipated cuts due to sequestration.

He may also be tiring of the constant grind of private fundraising, at a time when the Smithsonian is planning a new national financial campaign, to be launched very near the time of Clough’s departure. “Since his arrival [in July 2008], the Smithsonian has raised $893 million from private contributions, which included a record-setting year in 2012 of $223 million,” according to today’s announcement.

The Smithsonian’s achievements on Clough’s watch are amply detailed in today’s announcement (linked in the third paragraph, above). “Secretary Clough has served the Smithsonian with great distinction,” France A. Córdova, chair of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, is quoted in the announcement as saying.

By and large, I’d agree.

an ArtsJournal blog