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Smithsonian London? “Not So Fast!” Says Secretary Skorton

Notwithstanding the fact that its founding donor was British, the Smithsonian Institution’s proposed London outpost, conceived before the institution’s current head, David Skorton, came on board, is not necessarily a marriage made in museum heaven.

James Smithson, c. 1881 Heliotype Printing Co.

“James Smithson,” c. 1881
Heliotype Printing Co.

During their meeting today, Skorton and the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, its governing body, again delayed greenlighting on the project, on which a decision had initially been expected to be made last year, according to a January 2015 NY Times report by Graham Bowley. Last month, Peggy McGlone of the Washington Post reported that a decision on the project would be made this month.

Part of London’s allure, according to the previous announcement of the proposal, was that its mayor, Boris Johnson, along with the London Legacy Development Corp., were said to have “secured initial contributions of $50 million to construct the facility and to bring Smithsonian exhibits and programs to the city.”

The Smithsonian’s annual operating costs were to be “covered by private philanthropy and revenue from temporary-exhibit admission fees and retail activities.”

Not so fast, said Skorton, after the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents met today. This just in from Linda St.Thomas, the institution’s chief spokesperson:

Secretary Skorton said today that he did not ask the Board of Regents to take action on the Smithsonian’s presence in London because “we have not completed our due diligence,” which includes completing a thorough review of capital and operating costs, the nature of the programming in our space, and the sources of funding.

The Secretary and John McCarter, chairman of the Board of Regents, said there would likely be an announcement before the next full regents meeting in June. Because of the long-term nature of this project, Skorton said he wanted to be especially careful in planning.

No federal funds will be requested for the London initiative. Skorton added that he remains enthusiastic about this project.

Counting on as-yet-unspecified philanthropy and the vagaries of earned income to bankroll this ambitious project could be a dicey proposition, As suggested by a recent question during Skorton’s address last December at the National Press Club, Washington, a better approach for outreach by this federal institution might be establishing satellite facilities within the U.S.

In my view, a better model for international collaboration is loan exhibitions and collection sharing, not “international museum franchises,” as they were called in the headline of my Apollo magazine opinion piece about such ventures and misadventures.

As reported earlier today by Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper, British partners for a new cultural hub in London’s former Olympic site (now dubbed the “Olympicopolis”) are said to include the Victoria and Albert Museum, a new dance theater for Sadler’s Wells, a campus for the University of the Arts London and, possibly, the British Museum. Bailey added that “those involved with Olympicopolis in London are becoming frustrated that the Smithsonian has not yet made a firm commitment.”

In this instance, he who doesn’t hesitate may be lost. First and foremost, the Smithsonian needs to focus on the major capital projects on its own turf.

an ArtsJournal blog