Osugi/shutterstock

Osugi/shutterstock

The revocation by two donors of planned bequests to Manhattan’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum to protest the termination of its director serves as a cautionary tale for nonprofits that are increasingly keen to show zero tolerance for personal misconduct or ethical lapses.

The ousted director, Caroline Baumann, began working at Cooper Hewitt in 2001. After becoming its director in 2013, she oversaw the museum’s $91 million renovation. Design professionals lauded Baumann for her stances on climate change and diverse design programming, including a show centered on Muslim fashion.

Baumann was forced to resign in early February after a Smithsonian inspector general’s report concluded that she had created the appearance of a conflict of interest in connection with her 2018 wedding. Baumann called the report a “sham” and alleged that the investigation was colored with sexism. Six of Cooper Hewitt’s 27 board members, including former board secretary Judy Francis Zankel, resigned in protest, arguing that her termination was too severe a punishment.

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

But Zankel wasn’t finished. In a letter to Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, Zankel, who had given $1 million to Cooper Hewitt over the years, said she was rescinding her $5 million bequest to the institution due to its “unconscionable and disgraceful” treatment of Baumann. “Although I love the museum and its work, I can no longer support an institution that functions this way,” she wrote.

Arlene Hirst, a design journalist who is not on the board, also said she would 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 New York Times.

Questions of a Conflict of Interest

The Smithsonian’s inspector general reported that Baumann bought a wedding dress from a Brooklyn designer, Samantha Sleeper, for a steep discount. The designer subsequently received a free ticket to a museum gala worth $1,700. Baumann noted that such complimentary invitations are routine. Nonetheless, the inspector general concluded that arrangement gave “an appearance that these actions were a quid pro quo,” a violation of Smithsonian conflict of interest policy.

The report also found that Baumann obtained free use of a property affiliated with a nonprofit, LongHouse Reserve, for the wedding ceremony. Baumann told the inspector general that she had asked to use the LongHouse property because she was friends with its founder. The inspector general found that Ms. Baumann allowed LongHouse to use Cooper Hewitt rooms for two meetings without charging rent. Investigators also dinged Baumann for using museum staff members to publicize her wedding.

Zankel, in her letter to the Smithsonian’s Bunch, wrote, “to say the punishment does not fit the crime is an understatement.” She also suggested that “a touch of misogyny” was at play. “Can you imagine all this brouhaha about a dress and a wedding directed toward a man in the same position? I think not.”

Big Proponents for the Arts and Education

Zankel is a freelance illustrator and graduate of Hunter College, City University of New York. She attended the School of Visual Arts, where she studied fashion illustration. She is a former president of the Society of Illustrators in New York and a member of the Graphic Artists Guild and the Fashion Art Source.

If the Zankel name rings a bell, it may be because Judy and her husband Arthur, who passed away in 2005, pledged $10 million to Carnegie Hall to create its third stage, Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall, in 1999.

Arthur made his fortune in finance and played a key role in the 1998 merger of Citibank and Travelers Insurance Company. He joined Carnegie’s board in 1992, and at the urging of his close friend and Carnegie Hall President Sanford Weill, became vice chairman. From 1996 to 2002, he managed Carnegie Hall’s endowment fund. During his tenure, the fund grew nearly sevenfold, to $124 million.

In 2006, Zankel’s estate announced bequests totaling more than $120 million to six New York-based nonprofit organizations and charities.

The largest bequest, $42 million, went to Skidmore College to support the construction and operation of the Arthur Zankel Music Center, a scholarship program, and other initiatives. Two of Arthur’s sons attended the school. Teachers College at Columbia University received $10 million to establish the Arthur Zankel Urban Fellowships, which comprised 50 $10,000 scholarships for masters and doctoral students with demonstrated financial need. Zankel was a trustee of the college and underwrote a tutoring program for Harlem youth.

Zankel’s estate left Carnegie Hall $22 million to support the programs and operations of the Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall. Judy has also pledged to leave money to the hall. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I would do that,” she said. “It’s such an important institution, and I hope it thrives forever.”

Lack of Communication

While Carnegie Hall may be in line for a portion of Zankel’s fortune, Cooper Hewitt, at the time of this writing, isn’t—a pretty startling fact, considering she had been a trustee since 2008, the secretary of the board of trustees since 2012, and a member of the executive and collections committees.

Make no mistake, this one stings. The New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin noted that board members’ donations play a “significant role” in the finances of Cooper Hewitt, which receives far less taxpayer support, as a percentage of its budget, than do the Smithsonian’s other 18 museums and galleries. Cooper Hewitt is also the only one to charge admission, and on March 12th, the Smithsonian announced it was temporarily shutting down the museum over coronavirus concerns.

And so, at first glance, we can classify the Zankel/Hirst saga as another example of a donor or funder wielding their substantial influence to protest an administrative, strategic or curatorial decision.

While there’s a kernel of truth to this interpretation, I’d argue it’s also a bit too simplistic, in this case. A closer read of Pogrebin’s piece suggests that things didn’t need to escalate this drastically. While the Cooper Hewitt board is only an advisory body—major decisions are made in Washington—members nonetheless complained that they were left in the dark regarding the Baumann investigation.

“I still find it incomprehensible that the secretary decided these supposed infractions merited termination, and also that he didn’t seek advice from the board about this,” said author Kurt Andersen, one of the trustees who resigned.

Do we know for sure if Baumann would still be at the helm, or if Zankel would have kept the museum in her will if board members had been looped in throughout the investigation? Of course not. If Andersen’s take is accurate, should Bunch have advised his board on the potential termination of the museum’s director? Most people would answer “yes” to that question. More transparency and communication could have averted, or at least postponed, Zankel’s $5 million nuclear option.

The Smithsonian said it could not discuss Baumann’s removal, nor has it publicly disputed Andersen’s contention that board members were insufficiently briefed on the investigation and Baumann’s removal. It did, however, admit through a statement that the trustees’ resignations were “not unexpected, as some board members indicated they did not support the decision.”

Meanwhile, Architectural Digest’s Tim Nelson wrote that some trustees are hoping that secretary Lonnie G. Bunch will “reverse course and reinstate” Baumann.

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