Editorial: Rick West lost sight of basic mission

"W. Richard West Jr. was the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and something more as well. As the museum's driving force, creative impresario and steward almost from its conceptual birth more than a decade ago until his retirement last month, he guided it into a major brick-and-mortar attraction on the Mall, raising tens of millions of dollars to realize a vision that was largely, and idiosyncratically, his own. In pursuing that singular achievement, however, he evidently lost sight of a basic fact about the Smithsonian: that it is a unique institution, 70 percent of whose budget is furnished by Congress. For better or worse, that sets it apart from privately funded cultural establishments and imposes a different set of obligations.

Among those obligations is a sense of propriety, and of proportion, about spending what is, after all, largely taxpayers' money. Mr. West's habits of the purse may not have been as untethered as those of his erstwhile boss, former Smithsonian secretary Lawrence M. Small, who used museum funds for a Hawaiian vacation, for a new heat pump for his lap pool and for a trip to Las Vegas. Still, Mr. West's extravagant tastes in travel, lodging and lifestyle, and his seemingly liberal practices in billing the Smithsonian for travel at least partly on behalf of other organizations on whose boards he served, were unsuitable for an institution regarded by the public as a national trust.

As far as we know, there were no laws broken here and no attempts at deception. The Post's James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott, who examined Mr. West's spending patterns in a recent front-page story, noted his insistence that his travel reimbursement forms -- for some $250,000 in just four years -- be submitted openly and approved by his Smithsonian bosses. But that's not quite the whole story. Much of his travel -- to Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Sydney, Seville, Athens, New Zealand and other swank destinations whose enthrallment with Native American culture had until now gone unremarked -- was only glancingly justified on Mr. West's expense forms. Many of the particulars of his travels, including a limousine in Paris (where taxis are plentiful) and $1,000-a-night forays to Manhattan, suggest that Mr. West had confused his role with that of the private-foundation executives with whom he rubbed shoulders. An oil portrait of himself that he commissioned, at a cost to the museum of $48,500, is evidence of a vainglorious sense of entitlement."

Get the Story:
Editorial: Lifestyles of the Cultured (The Washington Post 1/7)

Relevant Links:
National Museum of the American Indian - http://www.nmai.si.edu

Related Stories:
Editorial: Rick West's extravagant lifestyle (1/4)
Ex-NMAI director West spent over $250K on travel (12/28)