A Renaissance Man

From finance to feathers, Secretary Lawrence M. Small brings diverse talents to the Smithsonian

Secretary Lawrence M. Small
Secretary Lawrence M. Small Smithsonian Archives

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."

It was no idle daydream. Small found a flamenco teacher named Fidel Zabal, a clerk at ITT in New York City, and commuted scores of times from Providence to the old man's walk-up flat. The kid was good, all right, but eventually Zabal told him, "You will never be famous unless you go to Spain."

So Small made plans to go to Spain. Alan Trueblood, a professor in the Spanish-Portuguese department at Brown, put him in touch with a Smith College overseas program. Now a sophomore, Small audited a Spanish course in addition to his regular load and squeaked by on a competency test. He then flew to Granada two months before the program was to start. By the time the other students arrived, he was miles ahead of them, speaking Spanish fluently. Meanwhile, he kept working on his guitar.

"Then I made a list of the top ten flamenco players in the world," he said with a wry smile, "and they were all Spanish gypsies, all 5 feet 6, with bronze skins, all child prodigies. And here I am, 6 feet 3, a suburban kid from New Rochelle, New York."

The dream changed, but not much. He loved living abroad and his language skills were very marketable, so he decided to work for Citibank, which was expanding in Latin America. Professor Trueblood was appalled: business was taking one of his best Spanish literature students ever. But he wished him well and, at a graduation dinner, gave Small a volume of Wallace Stevens' verse, which included not only the famous poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar" but the appealing tidbit that Stevens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, had also been an insurance executive.

With the bank job as his passport and his fluency in Spanish, Small took a position in Chile. And there he met Sandra, an American student, also fluent in the language. Today she is an interpreter in the federal court system in Washington. The Smalls continue to explore languages (he also speaks Portuguese and French) and the world itself, traveling whenever and wherever they can.

The couple's daughter, Amy, is studying fine arts in the Midwest, and their son, Martin, is a law student in New York (and a rock guitarist). Small's mother, former dean of Walton High School in the Bronx, still lives in New Rochelle, and his stepfather, a retired finance executive, is a painter. A striking abstract expressionist work by him hangs over the mantel in Small's living room.

Family is very important to Larry Small. "When I came to Fannie Mae in '91," he said, "I commuted from New York to Washington for 23 months, rode the shuttle 300 times, because my son was entering 11th grade in New York City and we just didn't want him to have the stress of moving right then." Small was planning to retire two years from now "and devote my life to music, art and languages," but when the Smithsonian asked him to consider becoming its 11th Secretary, Small realized that this would be a perfect assignment. "It's not work, it's total enjoyment."

He has a similar attitude about his guitar. When asked if he practices, he replies: "I don't practice, I play." He might play for 15 minutes, or he might play for two hours, running through a phrase 400 times. Learning from old records, he sometimes puts an impossible-sounding guitar passage on slow-time until he can learn all of the notes. "I lose myself in it. It's not taxing a bit."

He played for me, his amazingly extended, elegant fingers — the nails on the right hand are extra long — rippling over the fingerboard, pecking the surface to imitate the clack of heels, producing the fiery flamenco music as rich, exotic and intricate as Moorish filigree. Maybe it wasn't the tenth-best in the world, but it was good.

"I have no misconceptions about how well I play," he said. "It's not important. I just want to keep working."

I detected the same enthusiasm and drive in his plans for the Smithsonian. "I think there's clearly a tremendous opportunity for us to be far more meaningful to the American people," he said, "by developing a presence all around the country. I don't mean branches, but more of what is already being done."

We were talking about the Smithsonian's staggering collection of more than 141 million items, of which he doubts that even 2 percent are on exhibit. He hasn't yet had a chance to visit the Institution's vast storage and conservation facilities in Suitland, Maryland, with their thousands and thousands of pots, skeletons, spears and shields, fish, fossils and, reportedly, the brain of explorer John Wesley Powell. But he has a grasp of the basic issue, the sheer quantity of stuff owned by the Smithsonian.

"There are so many institutions that don't have extensive collections and would love to have long-term loans of objects from the Smithsonian as well as a permanent relationship with us. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service [SITES] is a huge success; it always has 40 to 50 shows traveling at any one time, and they are seen by millions of people. The Smithsonian name and reputation command a public, so the problem is to get to that public.

"It's no innovation on my part — the Smithsonian has already figured it out — but I can emphasize what is already a priority, and I look forward to working with members of Congress, who are fabulous conveners of people and resources in their areas."

The new Secretary envisions the Institution "building affiliations all over the country that will allow millions more to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by this collection of national treasures."

Plus, of course, there is the virtual museum. He told me of his visit to the Smithsonian's Astrophysical Observatory, which has robotic telescopes that provide images via the Internet, allowing students and teachers to download, say, a view of the moon. "Five years from now, there will be hundreds of times as much of this sort of thing available," Small said. "We will be delivering the Smithsonian virtually through electronics, in addition to delivering it physically by greater activity, to diffuse knowledge. This is a new age, as far as teaching materials go."

As a member of the Smithsonian Luncheon Group, an Institution outreach organization, Small has been thoroughly impressed by the high quality and vast experience of Smithsonian people. Recently he was talking to Michael Robinson, director of the National Zoological Park.

"We got onto New Guinea, and he said he'd lived there four years. Then we talked about Latin America. Oh yes, he'd lived in Panama eight years. And then I said my wife and I loved India, it's our favorite country for tourism and studies, and he said, oh yes, he'd just got back from there." So if anyone wants to know how Larry Small manages to do it, starting at 8 A.M. and going to 8 P.M., attending meetings back to back, he'll say, "It's fun. It's like watching the greatest show on earth."

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