Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Newsmaker Q&A: Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough

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Two years ago this month, G. Wayne Clough began a five-year term as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Until now, Clough had not given an interview specifically about the Smithsonian’s art museums, a group of institutions that collectively make up about a third of the institution. Our conversation took place yesterday.

MAN: When you took over the Smithsonian two years ago, relations with Congress were at an all-time low. One senator even suggested that the Smithsonian might be spun off of federal support. Have relations with Congress improved  and if so have they improved enough that you think Congress might be willing to fund and support new initiatives and programs?

G. Wayne Clough: It’s always a work in progress. Relationships are always something you have to sustain. I feel very positive about how things are working out with Congress. I took a lot of time to go up to the Hill and to listen to people. I heard a lot of concern. I don’t think they lost faith in the Smithsonian, I think they lost faith in the administration. I think they understand the value of the institution to the nation and the world.

I find their expressions of hope for the Smithsonian and support for it to be very strong. Our FY 2010 budget was very strong for us and it did have money for new initiatives. I think they are particularly interested in the things we talked about in our strategic plan and I think they’re very interested in the notion that it’s time for the museums to share resources and treasures with everybody: It’s not just creating a great experience for the 30 million people that came to see our exhibits, but also us finding a way to share our marvelous treasures of art and scientific wonders and such, but also the people behind them.

When I have time, I love to go through an exhibition with a curator and I’m excited about using YouTube and other social media to get these people out in front of the public. The more you can get these folks out in front of the public, the more they’re going to be the stars. I think Congress loves this idea that we could bring out to the [American] people these great resources and that digital technology can help us do that. It’s not just us bringing the tablets down from on high, but allowing people to say I don’t believe what you just told me… it’s the interactive part.

MAN: The best space in Washington, arguably in the whole nation, for a major cultural building is the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building. Today it’s pretty much empty, as it has been for years. Walk us through your plan for it. [Image: Flickr user martin_kalfatovic.]

GWC: I guess the first stage of it is to get it fixed so it doesn’t deteriorate. That means that speaking – and I’m an engineer so I have to think about this stuff a little bit – we have to fix the roof. The interior of the building is continuing to deteriorate on our watch. We spent $5 million of stimulus funding on that. We have gotten rid of a lot of things built-up on the inside that interfered with the architect’s vision… The idea is to go back to the original concept and to natural lighting. That’s one part of it.

As far as programming, we’re still not final on that. Of course part of that is the Latino commission has expressed some interest in the building [for a Smithsonian Latino Museum]. I personally don’t think that’s their first choice: It’s relative small and it’s not expressive of their culture. It’s also limited in its capacity as a museum structure.

The other problem is that in this day and age sadly it has to be blast-proof and it has very little reinforcement within it. Given that we’re trying to hold to the historical basis for the building, how do you put in serious structural elements in a way that doesn’t take away from the beautiful flowing capacity of the space? It depends where it goes, but if it were to go somewhere other than to the Latino museum concept, it would be a place where you deliver education if you will, education writ large. It was, at one time, a ‘unifier,’ a building that synthesized the Smithsonian Institution and we’d synthesize it around the grand challenges that address the Smithsonian: Art, science and the places art and science converge. That learning might take place in the building itself — for example, all the surfaces might be tactile, like touch-screens — or it could be a place where we deliver learning to a distant part of our planet or our country in ways that really help people who are culturally deprived.

Also, if you’re going to do arts education, it would be wonderful to think that [National Gallery of Art director] Rusty Powell and his folks would work with us to develop curricula. I see us collaborating with arts organizations around the country to do things together that we couldn’t do separately. The Smithsonian can be a convener, a trusted broker.

MAN: Do you have a timeline for that building?

GWC: It does depend on those things I mentioned earlier, and on money and engineering. We’re planning to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015, which is aggressive. Arts & Industries is probably going to lag that a bit, so probably 2017 or something like that. I’d love to do it faster — and would if things broke our way.

MAN: In 2005 the Smithsonian convened an external review committee made up of many leading figures in the art museum community to examine the Smithsonian art museums. It released its report in 2007, just as one Smithsonian administration was on the way out and as you were close to being hired. The committee both conducted evaluations and made recommendations. Have you read the report? Have you found it useful, or if it’s something kind of left over from previous leadership?

GWC: I think there’s always value. They got a lot of smart people together and they expressed a lot of ideas. I think there were a lot of good ideas. There was a problem with how it was messaged and and the timing was wrong, as you said.

[Undersecretary for Art, History and Culture] Richard Kurin has done a good job of bringing our art people together to talk about where we think our institution should go. As part of our strategic plan we had people from other museums come in and look at where we should go. It was less people staring down the barrels of a gun and telling them, ‘Here’s what we think whether you like it or not,’ [and more collaborative].

MAN: In other words, the Smithsonian has moved on from that evaluation?

GWC: I think we’ve moved on a long way from that day. If you look around where we are with the arts, we’ve hired three new directors. [Richard Koshalek at the Hirshhorn, Johnnetta Cole at the National Museum of African Art and Bill Moggridge at the Cooper-Hewitt.] There’s a dramatically different cast of characters and you can feel the different energy they’ve brought. They’ve dramatically influenced the look and feel of those institutions, the exhibits they have and so on. You just hang around Richard Koshalek and you get excited.

MAN: For years there’s been buzz that the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum could be merged. Will they be?

GWC: I don’t think there’s any discussion of that at the present time.

As cultural institutions, we need to – and I would include the Phillips in this – we need to start thinking together in many ways. It’s difficult to maintain financial capacity under present circumstances, to keep things as separate any more. Look at the Civil War. I’d like to work together with the National Gallery and the Library of Congress to do things together. Look at how the Hirshhorn did Yves Klein with the Walker.

MAN: Will any Smithsonian funds go toward the Hirshhorn ‘bubble’ plan?

GWC: They’re trying to raise most of it themselves. We’re all very interested in it and want it to happen. Heck, I’m thinking of moving my office over there. When you walk into that thing it’s going to be soaring to the sky. It’s going to be such a different thing for the Hirsh, something other than that forbidding circle of concrete. Plus what they’re doing with the bookstore and with the mirrors… and on top of it, Richard has this idea of levitating the building with lights you put on it in the evening and that’s going to be great for it.

MAN: That’s all great, but what about paying for it?

GWC: Richard Koshalek has a lot of contacts, that’s why we hired him. Our strategic plan isn’t just about thinking, it’s about resources. We knew we needed more money and that we have to rely less on the federal government to get where we’re going. We have to raise external funds to do these things. I’m not leaving him out there by himself. I’m working with him on sources. So we are working hard with him.

MAN: I don’t hear you committing or promising Castle funds to the ‘bubble.’

GWC: It’s possible under the right circumstances. We also think the ‘bubble,’ to some extent, will generate revenues. People will want to have their meetings there. It will be the place to be in Washington. Wouldn’t you want to go there?

MAN: None of the Smithsonian art museums has expanded in decades but all have seen their collections grow substantially over that time. Is that a concern, is that something the Smithsonian needs to look at?

GWC: Not at the present time. Property in Washington is pretty expensive.

MAN: At its most recent meeting, the Association of Art Museum Directors discussed the emergent question of ‘extra benefits,’ such as exhibitions based on a private collector’s holdings rather than on curatorial or academic inquiry. The New York Times put this question on its front page last November. Is it appropriate that a quasi-federal institution, one that receives substantial federal monies, hold exhibits made up entirely of two private collections, with those collections as the raison-d’etre of the show?

GWC: I think the question that comes to my mind is what’s your purpose? If you’re trying to help people appreciate art, are you restricted to your own collection or can you look to others. If you look at the Klein exhibit at the Hirshhorn, several of those pieces are from private collections. In my way of thinking about the [George Lucas/Steven Spielberg Norman Rockwell show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum], I don’t think you’re enhancing the value of those works of art.

MAN: Well, I think that’s not so much the issue I’m asking about. I’m not asking about including loans from private collections in a broader show, I’m asking about shows where the genesis of the show is to spotlight one or two people’s collection.

GWC: Obviously, I think this is one of those situations where you’re dealing with a nuanced decision. There are lots of those kinds of decisions. You want to show you’re dealing with a nuanced point and there’s a point to which you don’t want to go. You need to take it on a case by case basis and decide. If there’s educational value there, could it be enhanced by additional works of art? You should be within the bounds of a normal course of ethics and probably a higher course of ethics because we’re a quasi-federal institution, so there are things that would not apply to other museums. Whenever we tackle these things we need to make a conscious decision about it. It’s ok for us to do things that are slightly on the controversial side because if we do things that are non-controversial we become irrelevant.

MAN: The Smithsonian’s institutions house one of the world’s great collections of photography, but the Smithsonian doesn’t have any dedicated place to show those collections or the work of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. Is finding a place or a space for them something you’d like to do?

GWC: I don’t think that photography is a [stand-alone] target for us. I think it comes naturally into certain subject areas that operate within in the Smithsonian because we’re a diverse institution. Photography is found in almost every unit. So you can hardly go to any of them where they don’t have some kind of photo collection.

I’m told we have a ‘small’ collection of 16 million photographs. This is where digital can help us, if we can in fact create digital images. There are issues associated with that. Everything  the Smithsonian does needs to be of high quality. Those images should be profound. We should be able to transmit them digitally — and you don’t want them to become digitally obsolete either. You could make images that in 20 years you can’t read. So there are obsolescence issues we should be concerned about.

There are opportunities for is in the photography space, in the digital space. Earhart’s plane is gorgeous and it would be great if you had photos of it. We’re in the process of making a digital photo archive as we digitize these gorgeous objects. There’s nothing more interesting to me than taking these three-dimensional objects – a plane, a tiger at the zoo — and converting them into a 3-D object digitally that you can manipulate. It’s going to be very exciting. Then also archiving our 2-D objects because thry’re profound and speak to us from a distance in meaningful way.

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  1. Laura Hitchcock Williams says:

    Didn’t the Arts and Industry building house the USA Centennial Celebration artifacts. Where are those items housed now?

  2. “Digitize the Museum Collection” was his office-taking edict and good to see it still mentioned in most interviews even 2 years later. The great Smithsonian can lead the world in the concept of digitizing 3D artifacts, and rightly should, if it can get out of its own way, before somebody like nimble Google does it for them – with of course a price to pay.

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