Smithsonian Tosses a Bride, Architects Throw a Fit

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City (Ajay Suresh/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia)
Two big design-world news stories of the week.

Design is in the news. First of all, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ new show, Radical: Italian Design, 1965 to 1985, is fabulous. I’m in Houston now for an art weekend. It’s a rich, elegant show. It deserves a full piece, as does the beautiful Museum of Fine Arts, which I haven’t visited in years. A couple of beyond-the-scope-of-human-imagination bequests, good leadership, and smart thinking have transformed the place to one of America’s finest museums. Houston is a great art town.

First, two other design stories. One’s about a slinky dress, the other’s about marble columns.

I have to take a moment to reflect on the brouhaha in New York over a wedding dress. Last week, the Smithsonian fired Caroline Baumann, the director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum, a Smithsonian-run institution on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Its specialty is design, from advertising to textiles to cars, books, and refrigerators.

The issue is a designer dress. I don’t know Baumann, but I like the museum, which, under her leadership, has gone from dysfunctional to dynamic. She was tossed out the door over how much she paid for her wedding dress. A chichi designer she knew charges a going top rate of $3,000 for a dress adorned with furbelows, lace, and, I imagine, beaded capelets — the whole nine yards of silk and satin. Think a royal wedding dress. Baumann’s dress was a little thing, a cocktail dress, that cost her $750. That’s high crime and misdemeanor No. 1.

No. 2: A non-for-profit, LongHouse Reserve in the Hamptons, let her use its garden for her wedding free of charge. Baumann has comped LongHouse whenever it used Cooper Hewitt’s conference room for its board meetings.

A whistleblower complained — they’re in the news these days — and the inspector general of the Smithsonian descended, derringers drawn. An “appearance” of a conflict of interest was found — the dress designer, maybe, possibly, sometime before End Times, might conceivably display an object at a Cooper Hewitt show. Did the director suggest a bargain with her, a dress for a split second of museum fame? The designer says no, and I believe her. Did Baumann get a price break from LongHouse for its party space in exchange for a free conference room? LongHouse’s director says no. I believe him.

Whistleblowers are all the rage but, it appears, so is Latin — I’ve never seen “quid pro quo” in so many newspapers in the space of a few months.

Six members of the Cooper Hewitt advisory board have quit in protest, finding it petty that an exemplary leader should be shoved out the door for walking up the aisle in an ill-gotten dress. I don’t blame them.

Call me old-fashioned, but I find it unchivalrous to set a pack of wannabe G-Men on a woman over the cost of her wedding dress. In the design world, certainly a loosey-goosey place, kindnesses happen. They take the edge off its ruthlessness. And it’s a small world, with a thicket of relationships. Keeping accounts of niceties would be a gloomy, mean task.

As a museum director, I finagled free space in New York museums for my board meetings. I’ve been hosted for lots of free meals at openings. In the museums I directed, I let dozens of not-for-profits use my galleries for free. Hell — or I should say “Heavens” — I allowed my galleries to be used for funerals. And I’ve had a million dinner parties at my home for colleagues. That’s the nature of the art world. The private and professional aren’t segregated. Does everyone need to live in fear now? Do we need to keep a Checkers speech in our Prada handbags?

And did the snoops pry into every penny that the bride and groom spent on their wedding? How boorish if they did.

The Feds own and operate splendid art museums, but let’s be real. They are arts organizations and not traditional bureaucracies. Intoning “quid pro quo” with the schoolmarm’s hickory stick doesn’t seem right or realistic.

For a straight-laced Vermonter, I’m probably sounding very Italian, or even French. I’ve just seen an Italian design show in Houston, and I’ve just been to Paris, so maybe that explains it. I think what’s happened is unfair. Firing a successful, much-liked director damages an institution like the Cooper Hewitt, which, over the years, has had a lot of messy problems she seems to have resolved. The fallout and subsequent search for a new director will consume many months in the life of the museum. Donors are mad, and I can promise that everyone in the small, incestuous crazy design world is dropping a collective jaw at the prissiness of this. I’d just rewind the clock, reprimand Baumann, and take her back. It’s not like she’ll be buying wedding dresses in bulk.

A tourist gazes up at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Now, from needle and thread to the construction site and the marble columns. Apoplectic fits followed the Trump administration’s plan to prescribe classical or traditional style for new federal buildings costing more than $50 million. I wrote last week that this is reasonable, because it is. Reading what other critics said was informative.

Every new museum director, and every new leader, has heard the following when implementing his or her vision:

“But we’ve always done it this or that way” is the most common. Yes, we once tanned leather with our teeth, but someone, at some point, had a better idea.

“We tried that before” is best met by, “Well, we’ve never tried it my way.”

“How dare you” seems the quickest deployed and surliest line of resistance these days. It’s also the laziest and most entitled. A high-school debater has higher standards.

This is all very small thinking. I’ve read pieces by purportedly intelligent people calling the new draft rule racist, totalitarian, fascist, nihilistic, and “a putative fatwa against modern design” — and that’s the mild stuff. Personal attacks on the rule’s sponsors are both ugly and juvenile. We’re talking about a simple rule requiring that the federal government boost a style inspired by the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Vatican, and our own Capitol. No one will die.

In sleazy Washington fashion, an old draft of the rule was leaked. It was a work in progress and more of a thought piece, though I did admire its frankness and clarity. The leaker, though, intended to rile. The current draft is tighter and more targeted. My advice this week isn’t different from last week’s: Don’t be intimidated, stick to your guns, don’t back down, and push the rule through. I’m glad to hear someone, somewhere in the administration has a pulse when it comes to the arts.

The new rule, if it’s ever implemented, and I hope it is, mandates a style — classical or vernacular if a region has a local style — not for all new federal buildings but for flagship buildings. Classical style for big new buildings unites them aesthetically with the Capitol, the White House, the United States Supreme Court, and other icons. Our civic values descend from classical values. This is a fact. They’re noble values. Why hide or ignore them? Smithsonian museums are exempt.

I don’t think the federal government needs to be in the business of architectural adventurism. Let’s leave that to the private and not-for-profit sector.

United States Federal Building in San Francisco, Calif. (HaeB via Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

I’m astounded by how little critics of the new rule seem to care about whether the public likes cutting-edge architecture, or whether the people who work in these buildings think they’re beautiful. Right now, judging from surveys that the General Services Administration has done, there’s some considerable unhappiness. Lots of the new, marquee federal buildings strike people as unwelcoming, soulless, even heartless, and corporate. The public is paying the tab, and the workers inhabit the spaces. “We don’t care what you think” isn’t acceptable. It’s arrogant. When you’re spending public money, dismissing the public’s views or suggesting that people are yahoos isn’t an option.

Important federal government buildings need to be practical, first and foremost, but they need to reflect the best, broadly shared taste, which is going to be classical, prairie, mission revival, or some other traditional style. People need to be proud of the buildings and find aesthetic pleasure in them. There’s a waiver possibility if those planning, say, a new courthouse feel that these styles aren’t appropriate.

The U.S. Courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a rare example of a classical architecture built since 1962 (Photo: Timothy Hursley)

Right now, these styles aren’t pushed in architecture schools. With big government bucks in the mix, they’ll get new attention. The old styles have proven their durability as well as their elasticity — that’s why they’re often revived. I’m curious to see how a new generation of architects and engineers will reimagine them and how experienced people will rise to the challenge.

The new rule busts a design cartel. That’s a good thing. I realize it’s a bucket of cold water tossed at pricey, glitzy, big-name architectural firms. That said, it spotlights a great, sometimes forgotten, reality: When the government is footing the bill, the government has the right to tell you what to do.

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