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Smithsonian Perspectives

As financial demands soar, the Institution seeks corporate dollars while safeguarding its integrity

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This is a shortened version of a speech I made in December at the National Press Club. It involves the financial health of the Smithsonian — a subject of considerable importance.

Last year I received a letter that immediately got my attention. In it the Smithsonian was accused, in the critic's words, of "upping its ante with the devil."

What had driven my correspondent to exasperation was an announcement I had made soliciting corporate partners to fund an unprecedented initiative upon which the Smithsonian had embarked: the traveling exhibition, in celebration of our 150th year, of 300 of the greatest treasures we hold in trust for the American people.

"America's Smithsonian" required resources that I could not divert from our already strapped operating budget. Nor was I likely to find the required multimillions for such a short-term project by going to individual donors, however generous, or to foundations, subject as they are to so many worthy claims in these tough times for the arts.

So I approved a strategy that breaks new ground for most nonprofits: the inauguration of a corporate partnership program akin to that which provides support for the Olympics and similar events. Any time you break new ground, you expect controversy. Surprisingly, there was little. But those, like the correspondent, who did object raised important concerns that deserve attention.

Our disagreement is not about whether there are risks to an institution's integrity in accepting corporate sponsorship. Of course there are. Our disagreement is about whether those risks can be dealt with, and outweighed by benefits. I think they can.

In the past few years the very conditions under which we and our society operate have changed. For the Smithsonian, public funding is still available to support our core activities, but even the optimists among us know that we face a future of fewer public resources.

Where then to turn? Donations by individuals will always be crucial, but they are not enough to address our wide-ranging needs. Foundations can never redress the balance of shrinking funds for the nonprofit sector.

So we in the nonprofit world find ourselves turning to corporate support more and more. The Smithsonian took its first step into the new realities in the summer of 1991, when it revised an earlier policy banning the display of corporate logos at the Smithsonian in recognition of support for exhibitions and other programs. The decision was left up to Smithsonian directors. Some held the line, others, like the director of our National Museum of American History, saw the trade-off as one he was willing to make: "If I had to make the choice between not teaching and teaching with a logo," he told the press, "I would teach with a logo."

The heart of the debate has to do with assessing both what the corporate sponsor gains and what we in the nonprofit world gain. Let's not be coy about it. A logo is closer to advertising; otherwise why would corporations insist on having it prominently displayed? But is it endorsement? Is the Smithsonian saying this is a better product than another? Call me naive, but I think that's a stretch. The Smithsonian, by allowing a logo, is simply allowing a corporation the full measure of public goodwill for having funded that important exhibition or program.

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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