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The art of politics and the politics of art have finally converged.
Just days after the Smithsonian launched a Kickstarter campaign to preserve Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton today introduced legislation that would radically alter how the 170-year-old cultural institution raises money and is governed.
The Smithsonian Modernization Act of 2015 would expand the institution’s Board of Regents—which currently includes Chief Justice John Roberts, Vice President Joe Biden, and six public officials, per the Smithsonian’s charter—from 17 to 21 members. The bill would also require that all 21 regents be private citizens selected by the President, recommended to him (or her) by the Speaker of the House and the Senate President.
According to a press release issued by her office, Norton believes private citizens could fundraise better than public officials, and that the bill would be the “first significant change” to the institution since its founding in 1846.
“The Smithsonian Institution… needs a board equal to the task of raising far more funds to help support this unique institution,” Norton said. “Federal funds cannot cover all the Smithsonian’s unique expenses, as the search for funding Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit points out.”
The federal government covers about 60 percent of the Smithsonian’s funding—$819.5 million for fiscal year 2015—while the remaining 40 percent comes through private donations, trusts and endowments, and revenue from products, such as Smithsonian Magazine and gift-shop sales. The institution has a goal to raise $1.5 billion over the next seven years. Part of that effort seems to be online crowdfunding efforts like the campaign for Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit—the Smithsonian’s first-ever Kickstarter—which has already raised about $370,000 out of $500,000 from roughly 5,000 backers. The institution plans to celebrate the Apollo 11 landing with a 50-year anniversary in 2019, for which it will display Armstrong’s spacesuit in “a state-of-the-art display case that will mimic the climate-controlled environment where it is being safeguarded,” according to the online campaign.
Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson, could not immediately be reached for comment. (We will update this post if we hear back.)
Norton said the Smithsonian shouldn’t have to use online crowdfunding to fulfill its mission. “The present governance structure places immense responsibility… on dedicated but overextended [people],” Norton said. “[F]ederal officials comprise almost half of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, and must perform their fiduciary duties as board members while giving first priority to their sworn responsibilities as important federal officials.”
The Smithsonian includes 19 museums and galleries, nine research centers, the National Zoo, and the soon-to-be-completed National Museum of African American History and Culture. Only Congress, with the agreement of the President, can amend the Smithsonian Institution’s charter.
Update, 07/23: The Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson, Linda St. Thomas, declined to comment on the specifics of the bill because it is pending with the House Committee on House Administration. However, she added that Del. Norton has introduced similar bills in 2013, 2011, 2010, and 2007.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery