DeeDee Hughes, Staff Writer
The Smithsonian Institution is advancing plans to open its first international exhibit in London, set to open as early as 2021. The Smithsonian, which encompasses 19 museums, nine research facilities and a zoo, is a federally funded institution with all of its sectors currently located domestically.
The Smithsonian, however, has British roots. English chemist James Smithson was the founding donor of the Smithsonian. After his death in 1829, his entire fortune was left to his nephew, Henry James Dickenson (later Hungerford). Hungerford died without leaving surviving family behind, so the institution was then donated to the United States at the late Smithson’s request.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has been plotting a new cultural quarter in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which can be found in East London. The project is already home to prominent artist Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, ArcelorMittal Orbit. Johnson contacted the Smithsonian in summer of 2014, and an expansion overseas has been in the works ever since. Johnson is also said to have approached the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum about setting up shop in the cultural quarter, which would not be the first international exhibit for the museum as it has exhibits set up in Venice, Italy, Bilbao, Spain and Abu Dhabi.
Indeed, this idea of art museums expanding internationally is not a new one. Many museums, both American and foreign, have recently been setting up art exhibits in different host countries. The Louvre, for example, as one of the most famous museums in the world also plans on opening a branch in Abu Dhabi.
The question is: should the Smithsonian, a federally funded and quintessentially American institution, exhibit work internationally? Simply put: yes. At the risk of sounding cliché, the art world extends beyond geographic borders, and it is important for the United States to have an international presence at such an influential moment of intercultural artistic appreciation. More importantly, allowing the Smithsonian to show work abroad allows the institution and its impressive collection of works to reach an entirely new demographic. It is an opportunity for American works to be viewed by an entirely new audience in the diverse and cosmopolitan city of London.
Naysayers might object to U.S. taxpayers’ hard earned money going toward an exhibition that will ultimately open on British soil. While the Smithsonian is federally funded, this specific project will not be allotted money within the annual government budget. The expected $50 million expansion will be funded through private philanthropy and entrance fees for temporary exhibitions that will occur within the next seven years.
The cultural quarter is a brilliant way to generate jobs, spur international conversations about art and create a new purpose for the space that was used to host the 2012 Olympic games. It is a cause that should be fully supported.