Smithsonian Perspectives

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

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.

But if that's a small price to pay to ensure the greater good of funding important work, where should we erect the wall? Clearly we build it on the protection of content. No amount of money, from any source, should be able to purchase the content of the Smithsonian's exhibitions and other programs.

By now you have figured out that I am not one who believes that a connection with a corporate sponsor is a capitulation to all that is crass in our society. Indeed, I am amazed by the leap of argument that comes naturally to those who fear the worst. In the controversy that raged over the inclusion of LEGO-built animals in our exhibition in the late '80s on human attitudes toward animals — a choice made by our curators with absolutely no provision of corporate underwriting — we were warned that "Judging from the LEGO exhibit, it is only a matter of time before there are golden arches coming out of a McDonald's Air and Space Museum."

That's not my nightmare. Golden arches will not rise over the National Air and Space Museum on my watch. My nightmare is a future in which the Smithsonian is unable to make its collections and expertise easily available; one in which our ideas are stillborn, our capacity to update and contribute limited. But that's not to say I don't worry about what is and isn't acceptable in our commercial relationships.

If I had to summarize the Smithsonian's current thinking on the matter of corporate sponsorship, I would put it this way: we have entered an era of what I would call enlightened realism. We in the nonprofit world have certain needs that must be addressed and fundamental standards that must be adhered to. The corporate world has its own requirements. If we are to have mutually beneficial connections, we owe it to ourselves to work out what is and isn't negotiable and then to make every attempt to understand our potential partner's own issues.

But make no bones about it, this is an experiment. We have taken a number of actions to make sure we function within the bounds of propriety, including the scuttling of some borderline initiatives, the establishment of an internal panel to ensure the acceptability of all the partner programs, and the development of guidelines for the use of images and logos.

With these kinds of safeguards in place, we can guarantee the viability and integrity of the Institution.

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