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Smithsonian Pandemonium: Skorton Leaves, Museums Shuttered

It’s been a bad-news month for the Smithsonian: On Dec. 20, Secretary David Skorton, a cardiologist-turned-administrator, announced he’d be leaving his Smithsonian post on June 15 to become president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC—initials that mean something else to art aficionados).

He has arguably been the most successful, least embattled Smithsonian leader in recent memory, but has served, to date, a mere three and a half years in that post.

David Skorton
Photo from AAMC’s announcement

Just two days after this bombshell, the federal government shutdown began. Using prior-year funds, the federally funded Smithsonian managed to stay open through Jan. 1, but it’s now shuttered. Perhaps we’ll get some sense (or nonsense) tonight about how long this deplorable deprivation may last.

Wondering if there was any connection between recent events and his too-hasty departure, I asked Skorton (whom I know from our mutual connection to Cornell University) whether his exit had “anything to do with the current unsettled climate in Washington, where a great deal of funding is being sought for a wall and federal funding for culture seems to be on shaky ground.”

His reply:

My decision, a most difficult one, had absolutely nothing to do with any factor except my increasing concern about the challenges of our health care systems and the chance to participate in some way in solutions to those challenges. My roots are in medicine, including nearly 30 years of practice in academic settings so this is, in a sense, a return to those roots…

He “returned to roots” last summer at Yoko Ono‘s “Wish Tree” at the Hirshhorn Museum, to which he tied this message:

I also asked Skorton if there had been “any talk of reducing the Smithsonian’s budget and/or requiring the Smithsonian to charge admission, something that I know you oppose.”

He stated:

We have continued to experience overall stable federal funding and there has been no suggestion of our charging admission. As you mentioned, I am completely against any such move.

Let’s hope his successor is able to hold that line.

Named in March 2014 to assume the Smithsonian post, Skorton didn’t start there until more than a year later, having had the good grace to remain as Cornell’s president (a post he assumed in 2006) through the university’s 150th-birthday celebrations, which he had done so much to promote.

The Smithsonian’s not as lucky: Skorton has left the currently unfunded museum-and-research conglomerate with a small window for a big job search. It will need to fulfill Skorton’s five-year strategic plan (launched in 2017) without him, and it will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2021 under the leadership of a secretary-come-lately.

“The goal is to select the next Secretary before Skorton leaves to ensure a smooth transition,” according to the Smithsonian’s press release. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the first “transition” will be a temporary one.

I would speculate that a likely Acting Secretary could be another newcomer: John Davis, who in July 2017 became Under Secretary for Museums and Research/Provost—a position created by Skorton “to lead and promote multidisciplinary activities across the Smithsonian.”

One thing seems certain: As he did at Cornell events, and again at the Smithsonian, David will undoubtedly find some way to put his amateur musical skills to good work in his new gig:

The Secretary takes the stage at the Smithsonian Staff Picnic
Image from David Skorton’s Twitter feed

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