Cooper Hewitt donor pulls $5 million gift to protest Director's ouster

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Cooper Hewitt donor pulls $5 million gift to protest Director's ouster
Caroline Baumann, then director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, at a gala in New York on Oct. 18, 2018, wearing the dress she had bought for her wedding. The Smithsonian’s inspector general faulted the way she obtained the dress. Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A philanthropist who quit the board of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum to protest the termination of its director said on Thursday that she was also rescinding her $5 million bequest to the Upper East Side institution.

Judy Francis Zankel, who resigned as secretary of the board after Caroline Baumann was forced out by the Smithsonian, sent an email to Lonnie Bunch, the top official, notifying him that she was cutting the Cooper Hewitt out of her will.

“I find your treatment of Caroline Baumann to be unconscionable and disgraceful,” Zankel said in her email to Bunch, in which she copied the rest of the Cooper Hewitt board. She called the investigation that led to Baumann’s ouster “biased” and said that she had also changed her mind about leaving the museum her collection of decorative objects.

“Although I love the museum and its work, I can no longer support an institution that functions this way,” she wrote.

Bunch, in a statement, thanked Zankel “for her years of service and contributions.”

Baumann, who had worked at the museum since 2001 and was named director in 2013, was forced to resign Feb. 7 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.

The inspector general noted that she had bought a wedding dress from a Brooklyn designer for $750, while the designer’s website advertised gowns starting at $3,000, although the designer asserted that the dress she made was not comparable to a gown and that she had not given Baumann a discount. The designer later received a free ticket to a museum gala worth $1,700; Baumann has argued that such complimentary invitations are routine.

For the wedding ceremony, Baumann obtained free use of a Hamptons property affiliated with a nonprofit, and Baumann allowed the nonprofit to use a Cooper Hewitt meeting room without charge, the inspector general found.

The Smithsonian’s conflict-of-interest policy forbids employees from engaging “in private or personal activities that might conflict, or appear to conflict, with Smithsonian interests, such as using Smithsonian employment for private gain” or “giving preferential treatment to any person or company for any reason.”

Baumann last week called the report a “sham” and said that the agent who conducted the investigation “used derogatory, sexist language; he was overtly discriminatory to me and to others.” She was referring to a complaint by the dress designer that one of the investigators said he had heard that Baumann was a “bitch” and a “‘Devil Wears Prada’ type.”

In a statement last week, the Smithsonian said that it “abides by a code of ethical conduct” and that “as a public institution subject to federal oversight, we must maintain a shared commitment to these core values.”

Zankel, who has given close to $1 million to the Cooper Hewitt over the years, is the second donor to say she was changing her will in the wake of Baumann’s departure. Arlene Hirst, a design journalist who is not on the board, has said she would remove the museum from her will.

Six other board members — who were also frustrated at not having been informed of the investigation in advance — have resigned along with Zankel.

Some of the board members who resigned said they believed Baumann’s termination had been too harsh a punishment, given Baumann’s record of stewardship of the museum. Baumann had received high marks on her 2019 performance review, according to her lawyer, Luke Nikas.

The board, which had 27 members before the departures, is only an advisory body; major decisions are made by the Smithsonian in Washington. But board members’ donations play a significant role in the finances of the museum, which receives far less taxpayer support, as a percentage of its budget, than do the Smithsonian’s other 18 museums and galleries. The Cooper Hewitt is also the only one to charge admission.

On Friday, the Smithsonian said in a statement that the Cooper Hewitt board had reviewed the inspector general’s report and “was focused on the future of the museum.”

“We are grateful for the continued public and private support,” it said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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