D.C. cultural leaders offer words of wisdom to the Smithsonian Institution’s new leader.
It has been nearly 16 months since the Smithsonian Institution announced that Cornell University President David J. Skorton would become its 13th secretary. Between the March 2014 announcement and Skorton’s arrival this week, the billiondollar institution has been busy — exploring the possibility of opening its first museum outside the United States at the site of the 2012 London Olympics; raising money toward its first $1.5 billion joint campaign; and outlining a 20year master plan to redesign its museums on the southern edge of the Mall. ¶ Then there is the final construction and opening of the institution’s newest museum — the National Museum of African American History and Culture. ¶ It’s enough to overwhelm anyone, even the former president of an Ivy League university. So we asked a few of Washington’s cultural leaders — some are recent transplants, others have deep roots — to share their wisdom with the New Guy.
Artistic director of Arena Stage since 1998
Get to know the neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. — everywhere from Petworth to Southwest Washington to Adams Morgan to Mount Pleasant. This is a city of neighborhoods. That’s what makes us distinctive. Go to restaurants or an arts activity in every neighborhood in the city. It’s a very exciting time to be in Washington, D.C.
I would also say to him to get to know the universities. He comes from an academic background, and we have an expert in any area. It’s a political city, but also a city where the best and brightest come in economics, history and medicine.
It’s one of those places where you can find a thrilling dinner companion every night of the week.
Get to know: Andy Shallal, founder of Busboys and Poets. He understands how things launch neighborhoods through business and food.
Director of the Phillips Collection since 2008
When I left Dallas to take the helm at the Phillips in 2008, I was surprised by just how much of a company town Washington can be. Of course, I expected politics to be central in the nation’s capital, but in retrospect I think that I sometimes underestimated its pervasiveness into nearly every silo of influence.
Cultural conversations can get lost or diminished by news of the day. And so it quickly became clear to me that D.C. museum directors and senior administrators bear a heavy responsibility. It’s on us as cultural leaders to constantly reinforce our institutions’ importance to not only our visitors, members and constituents, but to the nation’s legislators as well. At all times, we are charged to champion the arts and humanities as meaningful and, yes, essential threads of everyday life . . . not just in Washington but across the country and around the world. So my advice to Secretary Skorton is to get some rest before he starts in July. A busy schedule awaits!
Get to know: Scott Kratz from the 11th Street Bridge Park Project, because he is a sterling example of boldly capturing and growing excitement, opportunity and potential in a part of the city that deserves attention.
Executive director of THEARC (Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus)
Get involved in the community by doing what is a priority for the community, not just coming in and assuming we have all the answers, can solve all the problems, but by showing what is a priority for the community is priority for us.
So many come in with a savior mentality and not everyone needs to be saved. Better to under-promise and over-deliver. You always need to be credible — credible in the community and credible in the boardroom.
With all of the changing dynamics of the city, [think about] that single parent who wants more for their child than they had. They’re trying to figure out how to navigate the changing landscape in the city. That is to me, the audience we strive to go after. They need a little bit of hand holding, someone to work with them. While, yes, it is important to raise money, you have to always remember why you’re raising that money.
Get to know: The Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, so that he will know what the community is thinking.
Deborah F. Rutter
President of the Kennedy Center since September
Pace yourself. There are more events on any given night than any human being can ever attend. There’s my first gala, my first National Symphony Concert, first Kennedy Center Honors. Don’t worry, there will be another year, and don’t try to do everything all at once.
Everybody who is not living in Washington, D.C., says it is filled with people who don’t really live here but who pass through. That’s not true. It’s filled with people who love D.C. as a home, a place to work, to live and play. The people of Washington, D.C., are a reflection of the fact that we have so many extraordinary institutions. It is really a joy from time to time to be a tourist. I have had even more fun when I visit as a tourist rather than as a professional.
You should got to the Phillips Collection. It’s beautiful. Beautiful scale. It’s a special place and one ofmy favorites.
Get to know: I have enormous respect for Rusty Powell [director of the National Gallery of Art]. He’s a fantastic guy. And I just spent time with Dennis Kelly, head of the [National] Zoo. I would say, go visit the zoo, have a visit with the pandas and know that we have this large-scale international zoo and yet it is a very intimate space as well.
William “Bro” Adams
Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities since 2014 and former president of Colby College
[ Washington] is a place of some uniqueness in the way it works, you have to get used to that. Until you experience it, it’s hard to understand the full impact of it. . . . Both the NEH and the Smithsonian depend upon political organizations and the realities of Washington. We have to find our way in those complex challenges. It’s a political place.
Living in Washington is a great part of these positions. Getting to know this city has been a wonderful experience. It is a company town in some ways, but much more diverse and interesting, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised how much fun I’ve had getting to know this.
There are lots of cultural interests, cultural in a really broad sense, and the international cultural community here. I’m still doing it, still learning. That’s an important thing to start early on, and to keep pursuing. And it’s incredibly interesting.
Get to know: Fellow travelers in this cultural world, the museum heads, the heads of the agencies that deal with culture . . . the NEA, the IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services], some of the people who deal with cultural issues in the State Department and the Department of Education.
Deborah F. Rutter
William “Bro” Adams