Secretary David Skorton shocked Washington DC’s art world yesterday, December 20, when he announced his sudden departure from the Smithsonian Institute’s top position. Less than four years into his role, Skorton will break both his initial five-year agreement and a second, four-year term that he had previously committed to according to The Washington Post. The leader of the world’s largest museum and research complex is also a trained cardiologist, and will become president of the Association of American Medical Colleges in June. His last day at the Smithsonian is June 15.
A former president of Cornell and Iowa Universities, Skorton came to a Smithsonian that some of his predecessors had roiled with scandal. In 2010, Gerald Wayne Clough, the 12th secretary of the institution, drew controversy for his decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery. (A later investigation by outside experts recommended that art not be removed from shows that had already opened. Two years later, the Iowa Republican Senator Chuck E. Grassley probed Clough’s travel expenditures for improper spending, but nothing was ever made of the investigation. The inquiry was likely prompted by Clough’s predecessor, Secretary Lawrence M. Small, who resigned from the Smithsonian while being scrutinized for his own personal and travel expenditures, among other issues.
By contrast, Skorton led the Smithsonian Institute with professionalism and a low public profile. During his short tenure beginning in July 2015, he exceeded expectations of the organization’s first major fundraising campaign, which exceeded its $1.5 billion goal to raise a total $1.88 billion. He also oversaw the opening of the National Museum of African American History in 2016 and initiated a $1 billion plan to renovate the Air and Space Museum, which is the nation’s most-attended museum.
Administratively, Skorton focused on diversifying leadership positions at the Smithsonian. He told The New York Times that 70% of new hires at the director level during his tenure were women or people of color, including the first woman director for the National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History, an appointment announced this month.
Additionally, Skorton notoriously nixed some of the Smithsonian’s more ambitious projects. He scuttled plans for a satellite museum in London, preferring to collaborate with the Victoria & Albert Museum instead to host exhibitions within its facilities. He also declined to create a standalone museum for American Latinos, instead greenlighting a gallery in the institution’s existing footprint.
“Increasingly I had become concerned about the state of the health care enterprise in the United States,” he told The Times. His new employer, the Association of Medical Colleges, oversees medical schools, teaching hospitals, and academic societies.
A spokesperson for the Smithsonian said that the search for Skorton’s replacement would start soon with the formation of a search committee. They expect it will take four to six months to fill the role.
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