Smithsonian Feels Small Touch

Article excerpt

When new Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's recent Salvador Dali show, he found the exhibition labels too small.

Mr. Small, 58, asked immediately that Hirshhorn officials make the labels larger. "I'm like the average middle-aged museum visitor who wears bifocals and can't see the small print," he says. "It was a wonderful exhibit, but this was one thing that needed improving."

The request was one instance of the hands-on approach of Mr. Small, who became the 11th secretary of the 154-year-old institution Jan. 24. Mr. Small previously spent nine years as the president of Fannie Mae, one of the nation's principal home-loan financing companies, and took a cut from $4.2 million in salary and other compensation to $330,000 annually to head the Smithsonian.

He is the first nonacademic and non-scientist to lead the institution, which has about 6,400 employees. Some Smithsonian insiders and outsiders had opposed his appointment because they feared he would be a bottom-line, numbers man.

Mr. Small collects art from rain forests in South America and Africa and says he identifies strongly with artists. He studied Spanish literature at Brown University and flamenco guitar in Spain. As a young man, he wanted to be a flamenco guitarist. "It took me just six months to find out I didn't have what it took to cut the mustard. I couldn't be the best one in the world, and that's what I wanted," he says.

"I regret all the time I'm not a professional musician. I play every day. I love it. I think about it all the time."

But Mr. Small definitely understands the importance of money. He has told Smithsonian museum directors that they can't depend wholly on the federal government for cash. "The only thing that stands between the Smithsonian and being an absolutely 21st-century institution is money. They must do more to raise their own funds," he has said.

The federal government supplies 70 percent of the Smithsonian's operating funds. The federal appropriation this year is $438 million, but indications are Congress will cut funding for the coming year and instead shore up maintenance of national parks.

In addition to the Smithsonian's 16 museums, the National Zoo comes under Mr. Small's purview. Mr. Small says he was aware of environmental issues when he negotiated a deal with China in April to bring two giant pandas - one male, one female - to the zoo. The pandas will replace the beloved Hsing-Hsing, the last of two pandas donated by China during the Nixon administration. The 28-year-old animal suffered from kidney disease and was euthanized in November.

The $1 million annual price tag for renting two pandas for 10 years raised some eyebrows, but Mr. Small said the money would go to the China Wildlife Conservation Association. (At the time, Mr. Small said the Smithsonian had about half the money in hand and would have to do fund raising to come up with the rest.)

"Conserving pandas highlights the importance of preserving their environment," Mr. Small says. Pandas are an endangered species because their habitats in southwest China are dwindling, and only about 1,000 still live in the wild.

Although raising money, mounting informative and attractive exhibitions and increasing attendance at the Smithsonian are high on Mr. Small's agenda, so is his contact with staff members.

In May, he instituted weekly coffee-and-Danish breakfasts. More than 200 employees, from security guards to those with doctorates, signed up for the discussions. Subjects range from the Smithsonian's infrastructure to its Internet presence.

At a June 9 town meeting with employees at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, Mr. Small praised the exhibits and exhibition design.

"They think about their exhibits not only from an intellectual point of view but from an aesthetic one as well," he says. …