- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ned Rifkin today resigned his position as the undersecretary for art at the Smithsonian, effective April 11.

“I was prepared to leave a year ago when Cristian Samper was installed as acting secretary, but he asked me to stay,” Mr. Rifkin said by telephone.

The art historian, who has held his position as undersecretary since 2004, said he timed his departure to coincide with the announcement of a new secretary of the Smithsonian by its board of regents as early as Tuesday.

Mr. Samper, a biologist, has served as acting secretary for the past year after executive Lawrence Small resigned in March 2007 amid criticism of his “Dom Perignon lifestyle,” in the words of Sen. Charles Grassley.

“My desire was to leave in front of the appointment of the new secretary so it wouldn’t appear as if I was commenting on their selection,” said Mr. Rifkin, one of five undersecretaries at the Smithsonian.

His resignation is the latest ripple in the growing wave of controversy surrounding the institution, which has taken fire for its lavish expenditures, accounting practices and deferred maintenance in its museums. At a 2007 Senate oversight committee hearing into these recent troubles, Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the Smithsonian “an endangered institution.”

Mr. Rifkin said the problems weren’t the reason for his departure, but he noted, “I feel the controversies that we experienced here have been sad.”

During his four-year tenure, he oversaw eight Smithsonian museums, the Archives of American Art and Smithsonian Photography Initiative. Among his achievements was supervising the ambitious renovation of the Patent Office Building into the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. He also established a fellowship program for practicing contemporary artists.

From 2001 to 2005, Mr. Rifkin served as director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where he previously worked as chief curator from 1986 to 1991. In between those jobs, he headed the Menil Collection and Foundation in Houston and High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Acting secretary Mr. Samper announced that he will not replace Mr. Rifkin but will have the Smithsonian art museums and organizations report to Richard Kurin, acting undersecretary for history and culture.

As to what he plans to do next, Mr. Rifkin said he “will spend time writing” while “weighing the right opportunities inside or outside the museum world.”

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