This post has been updated. Please see below for details.
David J. Skorton, a cardiologist who’s spent the past decade as president of
Skorton, 64, will be the first physician to serve as secretary of the Smithsonian, a federal department that runs a diverse array of cultural sites and research programs literally extending from A (eight museums and galleries devoted to art and design) to Z (the National Zoo), with major museums of history, natural history and the popular National Air and Space Museum in between. It's considered the world's biggest museum organization.
Skorton will succeed G. Wayne Clough, who announced his impending retirement in September. Skorton's appointment continues the Smithsonian's choice of university presidents as its leaders following the seven-year tenure of Lawrence Small, a career banking and financial executive who resigned in disgrace in 2007 after an investigation into lax financial oversight and questionable use of personal expense accounts.
Clough left the presidency of
Skorton, who in 1979 completed a residency and cardiology fellowship at
The Smithsonian's board chair, John McCarter, said in a statement announcing Skorton's appointment that its Board of Regents picked him because he'd "led complex organizations" and is "an accomplished research scientist and a strong advocate for the arts and humanities."
Skorton said that the chance to lead the Smithsonian "is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead an institution that's at the heart of the country's cultural, artistic, historical and scientific life."
He's married to Robin Davisson, a professor of molecular physiology at Cornell, and his leisure pursuits include playing jazz saxophone and flute.
At the Smithsonian, Skorton’s tasks, figuratively speaking, may initially align more with obstetrics and pediatrics than his specialty in cardiology: his agenda will include ensuring a healthy infancy for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture that’s under construction on the National Mall in
He also may find himself in charge of a feasibility study for a new Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino, whose supporters are urging
At Cornell, despite a recession that had severely impaired university endowments nationwide, Skorton gave the go-ahead in 2009 to an expansion of the university's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. It opened in 2011.
At the University of Iowa in 2004 he vetoed a proposal by a university financial belt-tightening task force that would have cut $118,000 a year in funding for the campus'
"The funding we allocate to the humanities through our government has never come close to the value the humanities add to individual lives and to the life of our nation," Skorton wrote in a 2011 column for the Huffington Post in which he called for an increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities. "Even in times of austerity, especially in times of austerity, sound investments must be made."
While Clough's tenure has been free of the fiscal scandal that hit the Smithsonian under Small, he set off a storm of protest in 2010 when he ordered the removal of an artwork from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in response to conservative critics who had deemed it anti-Christian.
The video-art piece, "Fire in My Belly," by David Wojnarowicz, included an image of ants crawling over a cross, and was part of an exhibition focusing on the work of gay and lesbian artists. Clough later said he should have consulted the directors of the Smithsonian's art museums instead of acting on his own to immediately yank it from the show.
Clough said that
The National Portrait Gallery subsequently posted an explanation of the removed artwork that said Wojnarowicz’s intent in using the cross in his 1987 video was not to mock Christian faith, but as a “surrealistic” symbol for “the suffering, marginalization and physical decay” of
For the record, March 10, 5 p.m.: an earlier version of this post incorrectly gave 30% rather than 70% as the approximate share of the Smithsonian Institution's budget that's covered by federal funding.