The Smithsonian Institution is on the hot seat again, and there are several connections with Seattle-area figures this time around. We'll see if our vaunted ability to bring about harmony and consensus can come to the rescue.
The story is recounted in the Sunday New York Times. The first Seattle figure to enter the stage is G. Wayne Clough, the new secretary brought in to try to get the scandal-plagued museums back on track. Clough (pronounced like "tough") served as provost at the University of Washington, 1990-94, and when he was wooed away to be president of Georgia Tech (he's a native of Georgia), it was thought to be a big loss for the UDub, which has struggled for decades now to find provosts who could both bring about effective change and stay in the post.
Clough arrived at the Smithsonian in July 2008, and his courtly Southern manner was thought to be just right for steering the Institution beyond the scandals brought on by the lavish spending of his predecessor, Lawrence Small. A "new trajectory" was sought, overseen by the next Seattle figure, Patty Stonesifer, the new chair of the Board of Regents at the Institution and the former co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Stonesifer, with her husband Michael Kinsley, now spends a bit less than half her time in Seattle and a whole lot of time getting the revered Institution turned around. Its budget for the coming year is $861.5 million, assuming Congress doesn't rebel at this request.
Clough walked right into a noisy flap, the kind bound to stir the sleeping dogs of Congress, particularly conservatives. At first, he succeeded in getting the Institution's fractious directors on a common course. As a civil engineer, he could stress the science and research side of the Institution, rather than its art museums, which went down well with Congress.
But then came a show called "Hide/Seek" at the National Portrait Gallery. The mainstream museum was an odd choice for a show focusing on gay artists and others of "complicated sexuality" and those who depicted America's gay subculture. One work, a video by David Wojnarowicz, has 11 seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix. After a month during which the show roused little controversy, a conservative web site got hold of that video and stirred up protests. Soon Congress was threatening budget cuts and Clough took down the video (not the show). Liberals and artists protested the cave, and the crossfire got wicked.
In episodes like this, the overseers soon get involved, and it appears that Clough could have done a better job both in vetting the show (arranged before he took the helm) and in keeping the board better informed. Stonesifer is quoted as saying the episode is "a breach of trust." This is not the ideal time, with a new Congress looking for places to slash budgets, to have this fight.
Want to see the show in question? In an ironic local twist, Tacoma Art Museum, together with the Brooklyn Museum, is reviving "Hide/Seek," and so it will be coming to Tacoma and this area in 2012, including the famous Wojnarowicz video. Doubtless interest will be high in the show, and that probably includes some vigilant legislators in Olympia. Do I hear people shouting "Encore"? I certainly hear some cheers for Tacoma Art Museum's imaginative director Stephanie Stebich.