Benefactor James Smithson would have been delighted.
Lawrence M. Small, the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, comes to the Institution from the number two post of president and chief operating officer at Fannie Mae, the huge federally chartered mortgage investment company. Before that he logged 27 years rising to the top at the global financial firm of Citicorp/Citibank. But when I visited him recently at his Washington, D.C. home, it was clear that, as he said, his "interests go beyond the typical financial drone."
It was what you would call an understatement.
We left his house and drove a few blocks to an apartment complex, and there he let me into a vast suite — 2,500 square feet — that he and his wife have turned into a private gallery. It is a museum of Amazonian tribal art.
Still unfinished, it has already won an American Institute of Architects award for design. Not even a third of the thousand-plus items collected by Small and his wife, Sandra, from the Amazon region of Brazil are displayed, but what is there is wonder enough. There are headdresses, capes, masks, nosepieces, labrets and armbands, all festooned with feathers of every conceivable color and size, from foot-long macaw feathers to fingernail-size hummingbird feathers. The combinations of colors dazzle the eye wherever you look.
"Some people call this 'primitive art,'" Small said. "But, as you can see, it's quite complex. The ability of the artists of the rain forest to work with color, form and a considerable variety of natural materials is highly sophisticated." He then led his pop-eyed visitor through one breathlessly beautiful room after another.
And the collection is just for the enjoyment of family and friends. "We've never sold one piece in our lives," Small said. "But we were getting crowded out of our house by all that art." He is right. His house is a sumptuous, spacious place with marble floors and chandeliers, banquet tables and book-lined studies, but it was filled right up with statues from Africa and New Guinea, mud men masks, tribal art from New Guinea and the Amazon, wooden effigies and a Papua New Guinea spirit mask the size of a Fiat.
Small, 58, has served on more than a dozen boards, committees and organizations, ranging from the Spanish Repertory Theatre in New York City to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council to Morehouse College, a historically black institution in Atlanta. How does he do it? "I'm just interested in what I do," he said. "You could not do what I've done in my life and be bored with your work. I don't think it's a question of ability; it's just being interested in people."
And music. It was a Carlos Montoya record of flamenco guitar that sparked a lifelong passion. Small remembers exactly which step of a Brown University dorm staircase he was stepping on when he heard the music coming from someone's room. He was a freshman. He was 18 and wondering what he was going to do with his life.
"I was completely overwhelmed by what I heard," he told me. "I became obsessed. By the time I hit the top step I said to myself, 'I hereby dedicate myself to becoming the greatest flamenco player in the world.' That was 40 years ago."