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6 Cooper Hewitt trustees resign after Director's removal
Judy Francis Zankel at a gala for Carnegie Hall, in New York, June 20, 2017. Six trustees have resigned from the board of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum to protest the removal of the museum’s director, Caroline Baumann, following an investigation into issues including her 2018 wedding. Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Six trustees, among them the prominent designer David Rockwell, have resigned from the board of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum to protest the removal of the museum’s director, Caroline Baumann, following an investigation into issues including her 2018 wedding.

Baumann was forced to resign Feb. 7 after an investigation by the Smithsonian’s inspector general into how Baumann procured her dress and the venue for the ceremony. It was unclear whether there were additional allegations. According to two people familiar with the Smithsonian’s decision-making, the inspector general found the appearance of a conflict of interest, but several board members said they believed the punishment was unwarranted.

“Caroline’s treatment violates every principle of decency, and I feel that remaining on the board tacitly condones this behavior,” board secretary, Judy Francis Zankel, wrote Sunday in a resignation letter to her fellow trustees. She called Baumann “an exemplary leader who gave everything to her job.”

The museum’s board, which included 27 people before the resignations, according to the Cooper Hewitt website, serves in an advisory role. Several trustees had asked Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Smithsonian’s secretary and top official, to reconsider his decision and reinstate Baumann. Those trustees have argued that they should have been consulted before he made his decision and that their support of Baumann’s performance should have been considered.

Though their power over museum operations is limited, the defection of a critical mass of board members could hurt the Cooper Hewitt’s finances. It receives about half of the support, as a percentage of its budget, that the federal government gives the Smithsonian’s other museums. As a result, the Cooper Hewitt relies more heavily on donations, including from board members like Zankel, a prominent philanthropist.

Baumann, 53, had worked at the Cooper Hewitt since 2001 and was named director in 2013. She has not commented on her departure.

In her resignation letter, Zankel wrote that “to say the punishment does not fit the crime is an understatement.”

Along with Zankel, those who resigned from the board were Rockwell; Jon Kamen, founding chairman and chief executive of RadicalMedia, a production company; Francine S. Kittredge, founder of the Neuberger Berman Foundation, which helps at-risk youth; Avi N. Reichental, a pioneer in 3D printing; and author Kurt Andersen.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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