When David Skorton was announced as the 13th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution earlier this year, almost as much was made of his personal history as a jazz flautist and a cardiologist as was inferred from his career history at Cornell University and the University of Iowa. But his legacy at Cornell, where as president he's resided over fundraising efforts that have totaled some $4 billion, offers clues about how he might navigate the challenges facing the Smithsonian in the 21st century.
Skorton's biggest regret at both university presidencies, he told The Washington Post's Philip Kennicott at the Washington Ideas Forum Wednesday, was that he hadn't been able "to change the balance more effectively between access and affordability." One of the most difficult questions he faces when he arrives at the Smithsonian next year will be how to reconcile the institution's commitment to accessibility with the financial burden of running its museums, research centers, and educational programs in a time of ever-shrinking budgets.
Although Skorton has talked in the past about the need to carefully analyze the Smithsonian's business model, he emphasized that this doesn't mean introducing entrance fees for visitors. "I think one of the fabulous aspects of the Smithsonian is that everybody can get in there, and that these days, you don't even have to come to Washington to do it," he said, referring to the ongoing efforts to digitize the treasures in the nation's attic. "It's a very populist idea and a very populist ideal." While nonprofits of all kinds are going to have to be more and more creative in the future, he said, he has "no intention of making the institution less accessible."