- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2001

The Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents, meeting at the National Zoo yesterday, heard a glowing report from Secretary Lawrence Small about the Smithsonian's fund-raising and attendance "momentum."

Mr. Small will mark his first year as Smithsonian secretary tomorrow. Previously secretary of Fannie Mae for nine years, he is the Smithsonian's first non-academic and non-scientific leader.

The regents chose the zoo for their quarterly session, Mr. Small said at a press briefing, to acquaint them with Washington's new "first couple." He was referring to giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, for which the zoo is paying the China Wildlife Conservation Association $1 million annually for 10 years. Related expenses bring the cost of the pandas to $18 million, Mr. Small said, noting the Smithsonian has covered the amount through fund raising.

An estimated 3 million people visited the zoo in 2000, about the same number as in 1999. But in just the first week of the panda exhibit this month, "We got just shy of 80,000 visits," he said.

The attendance figure Mr. Small trumpeted yesterday was the more than 70 million "visits" to the Smithsonian's museums, zoo, Web sites, affiliated museums, traveling exhibits and annual Folklife Festival. The Smithsonian does not use the term "visitor" because someone stopping by more than one Smithsonian facility would be making a "visit" to each facility.

The Smithsonian museums alone recorded a record-breaking 34 million visits, compared with 31 million in 1999, Mr. Small said. The National Museum of Natural History grabbed the lead logging 9.4 million visits from the National Air and Space Museum.

Air and Space, which had been the leader since its opening in 1976, reported 9.2 million visits. Throughout the year, about a quarter of the museum was closed at any given time as the building's window walls were replaced.

Mr. Small said several exhibits during the past year helped boost attendance. "Dali's Optical Illusions" nearly doubled the attendance at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden during its run there from April 19 through June 18, compared with the same period in 1999, giving the Hirshhorn a "banner year." Also popular, he said, were "Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos" at Ripley Center, the Viking exhibit at the Natural History Museum and the American presidency exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian has 16 museums and galleries 14 in Washington and two in New York City. Three were closed during 2000 for renovations the American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Anacostia Museum.

The Smithsonian gets 70 percent of its money from the federal government, which amounted to $455 million in fiscal 2001. Mr. Small said the stock market had been good to the Smithsonian. Contributors also were "generous," he said. As of Sept. 30, the Smithsonian had raised $206 million, compared to $147 million the previous year. The next three months brought in an additional $44.7 million.

He said the Smithsonian would be asking for an increased federal appropriation in March for the next fiscal year, but the amount was undetermined.

When a reporter noted that Mr. Small had not mentioned any scientific accomplishments by his institution, he quickly noted they had been reported to the regents. Among them were that the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory discovered four new moons orbiting Saturn in late October.

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