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Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2002 / 29 Shevat 5762

Philip Terzian

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No museum for Oprah


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- WASHINGTON | This is a city of transients, and many have lots of money. Some have used their cash to purchase seats in the House and Senate; others have obtained appointive office; still others seek to establish salons, or cut a social swath, or build monuments to themselves.

Catherine B. Reynolds is a case in point. She and her husband, Wayne, made a great fortune by founding a lending institution that underwrites student loans, and then selling their business to Wells Fargo. Not long ago Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds established something called the American Academy of Achievement which, according to The Washington Post, "organizes an annual gathering that brings together dozens of 'superachievers' with hundreds of high school students." In recent years Mrs. Reynolds' ambitions have grown. Last December she chaired the annual ball for the National Symphony Orchestra -- guest of honor: Ray Charles - and the next day donated $10 million to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where the NSO performs, to underwrite a series of productions.

The jewel in Catherine Reynolds' philanthropic crown, however, was a $38 million donation to the Smithsonian Institution. It was intended to build a 10,000-square-foot exhibition hall called Spirit of America within the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Mrs. Reynolds was anxious to create a permanent exhibit extolling individual achievement, a hall of fame that would inspire young visitors about "the power of the individual to make a difference."

Yet what might have sounded like a worthy idea in principle got bogged down in the details. As is often the case with inspired benefactors, Mrs. Reynolds' gift was not entirely disinterested: She insisted on closely supervising most aspects of Spirit of America, and bewildered by the slow bureaucratic grinder through which government-sponsored projects are squeezed, she inevitably clashed with museum curators. So disheartened was she, in fact, that she withdrew her huge gift this past week and dispatched a letter of complaint to the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lawrence Small. Among other things, Mrs. Reynolds said that the museum scholars tended to belittle the significance of individuals in comparison to "movements and institutions," and that they took exception to some of the individuals Mrs. Reynolds had earmarked for glory.

It is hard to detect any middle ground between the two antagonists. On the one hand, Mrs. Reynolds is rightly suspicious of Smithsonian scholarship: The curators, especially at the American History museum, tend to favor a kind of pidgin Marxism in their choice of presentations and subject matter. And in the past few years there have been several contentious, deeply politicized, exhibitions -- on the American West, the atomic bomb, etc. -- which seem designed deliberately to malign the United States, or pull the heroes of history down a peg or two. But Mrs. Reynolds' alternative was equally gruesome: The individuals chosen for her Spirit of America exhibition included such putative honorees as Martha Stewart, Michael Jordan, Steve Case, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Donaldson and Coretta Scott King.

I confess that the malicious bones in my body ached with anticipation for the 156-year-old Smithsonian Institution being used as a vehicle for one rich woman's permanent tribute to Sam Donaldson and Martha Stewart. But this basically humorous episode has a troubling aspect as well.

The Smithsonian's secretary, Lawrence Small, has been much criticized for his relentless emphasis on corporate fund-raising, which has sometimes taken the form of renaming galleries, exhibition halls or even whole museums in honor of wealthy contributors. Congressional subsidies do not cover all the Smithsonian's many expenses, and there is certainly nothing wrong with soliciting gifts from enlightened millionaires. But there is a difference of tone and degree between those old philanthropists -- the Mellons, Andrew and Paul, or Samuel Kress, or James Smithson himself -- who gave funds as an homage to the institution, and their contemporary equivalents who write checks as a form of corporate advertising. Parts of the Smithsonian have already been renamed in honor of Fuji Film, KMart and Orkin, the pest-control people.

It is one thing to sell the "naming rights" for sports arenas and stadiums to the highest bidder: These are not cultural institutions, and I can always look forward to the day when the Washington Redskins play in a park named for Preparation H or Grecian Formula. But the Smithsonian Institution and its museums -- indeed, any museum or gallery of art or historical site -- are different: They are intended to educate, not just entertain, and they are not private spaces for exploitation but hallowed ground, part of our national heritage, where standards of quality and scholarship ought to prevail.



JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.

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