Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York (via Wikimedia Commons).

Hakim Bishara, After Cooper Hewitt Director Is Ousted Six Trustees Resign in Protest, Hyperallergic, 18 February 2020

Caroline Baumann was discharged from her position as museum director after the Smithsonian investigated an alleged conflict of interest regarding the dress and venue for her 2018 wedding.

Six trustees at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York have collectively resigned to protest the resignation of the museum’s director, Caroline Baumann, the New York Times reported.

Baumann was discharged from her position on February 7, following an investigation by the Smithsonian’s inspector general into an alleged conflict of interest in her choice of a dress and a venue for her wedding.

The resigned trustees, some of whom donate great sums to the museum, served on an advisory board that included 27 members. They are author and radio personality Kurt Andersen; philanthropist Judy Francis Zankel; Jon Kamen, the founding chairman and chief executive of the production company RadicalMedia; Francine S. Kittredge, founder of the Neuberger Berman Foundation; 3D printing entrepreneur Avi N. Reichental; and designer David Rockwell.

The Smithsonian and Cooper Hewitt have declined Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

The former trustees decried what they consider as a disproportionate measure by the Smithsonian. According to the Times‘s reporting, Zankel, one of the museum’s largest donors, described Baumann as “an exemplary leader who gave everything to her job” in her resignation letter to the board.

“Caroline’s treatment violates every principle of decency, and I feel that remaining on the board tacitly condones this behavior,” Zankel wrote. “I cannot stay on the board and just shrug my shoulders and move on.”

The Times‘s report adds that several trustees had asked Lonnie G. Bunch, the Smithsonian’s secretary, to reconsider his decision to remove Baumann from her job. Although trustee opinions are not considered in making executive decisions, they argued that they should have been consulted before the decision was taken and that their evaluation of Baumann’s performance should have been taken into consideration.

Arlene Hirst, a design journalist and a donor to the museum who is not on the board, followed with a threat to remove the museum from her will.

“I have willed a substantial amount of money to the museum — not in the same league as the trustees, but a lot for me — and I am angry enough at these trumped-up charges to change the bequest,” she told the Times.

Baumann was named director at the Cooper Hewitt in 2013 after working in the institution for 12 years. An anonymous complaint by a staff worker raised questions about her wedding in September of 2018. According to the Times, the complaint suspected that Baumann had received a significant discount on her wedding dress from New York designer Samantha Sleeper ($750, compared to the $3,000 starting price for gowns listed on the designer’s website).

Sleeper told the Times that agents from the inspector general questioned her about whether Baumann had promised her any professional favors in return for a discount on the dress. Sleeper denied the allegations, saying that the price was appropriate because the dress was relatively simple, unlike a traditional wedding gown.

The Smithsonian also investigated a possible quid-pro-quo in Baumann’s choice of a wedding space, which was at a property affiliated with the nonprofit LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, New York. The nonprofit, which has long been associated with the Cooper Hewitt, did not charge Baumann a fee for using the venue. In the past, the former director allowed the nonprofit to use the Cooper Hewitt conference room for board meetings, free of charge.

Zankel finds these allegations petty, writing that “to say the punishment does not fit the crime is an understatement.” She also suggested in her letter that “a touch of misogyny” was involved in the decision to dismiss Baumann.

“Can you imagine all this brouhaha about a dress and a wedding directed toward a man in the same position?” Zankel wrote. “I think not.”

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