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Smithsonian review calls art museums underfunded

The history and science divisions get more resources and attention, says outside panel.

March 23, 2007|Brett Zongker | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution's eight art museums are "drastically underfunded" and have "seldom lived up to their names," according to an external review.

The voluntary review by a panel of seven prominent museum directors gives recommendations to strengthen each museum and is similar to an external examination of the Smithsonian's science programs in 2003. The review was adopted by the Smithsonian Board of Regents in January, though it was not released until this week.

"Art museums made a late entry into the Smithsonian and receive a proportionally small share of the Smithsonian's federal funding compared to history and science," the committee wrote.

The Smithsonian receives nearly $640 million annually from the federal government -- about 70% of its budget -- but spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas was unable to say how much is directed toward the art museums. The report did not say how much funding is needed but noted the museums require more money for staffing, facilities, storage and acquisition of artwork.

The report recommends reorganizing some administrative, research and curatorial functions among the museums to eliminate duplicated efforts and promote collaboration. It also urges the Smithsonian to reinvest in art education at a time when schools are struggling to provide such opportunities.

Ned Rifkin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for art, initiated the review in 2005.

"Some of our collections are indeed world class and others need improvement," said Rifkin, a former director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, which features contemporary art.

Rifkin said he hoped museum staff would view the report as "constructive criticism, rather than condemning in any way."

Museum facilities drew the committee's attention, including water leaks at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which house Asian and Islamic art. But Rifkin said the leaks have already been repaired.

"It's really symptomatic of the age of some of our buildings, rather than our vigilance," Rifkin said.

The report was released as Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed legislation Wednesday that could jeopardize a $17-million increase in funding for the Smithsonian until the institution makes changes to eliminate "unauthorized and excessive" compensation and expenses for Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small.

The review committee included the directors of such museums as New York's Museum of Modern Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

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