WASHINGTON – Purdue University President France Cordova was installed Monday as chairwoman of the Smithsonian Institution's governing board as the museum complex expands with the coming construction of a new black history museum and amid calls for another focused on Latino American heritage.
As Cordova begins her three-year term, she will maintain her post at the Indiana university. She will lead oversight and support fundraising for the world's largest group of museums and research centers. Cordova is an astrophysicist and previously held posts in the University of California system and was chief scientist at NASA.
At a briefing Monday after the board met, Cordova said the Smithsonian regents would increasingly focus on fundraising and are excited about both the black history museum and the potential for a Latino museum.
"Those are clearly challenges," she said. "They're more well-defined challenges. It's the ones that aren't that really take a lot of thinking and strategizing."
While it builds new museums, the Smithsonian also must upgrade and maintain its existing facilities.
On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden also addressed the Smithsonian board for the first time at one of its regular meetings to underscore the importance of building the black history museum, Smithsonian officials said. His remarks were not open to reporters.
In February, construction is set to begin this year on the museum, the first addition to the National Mall since the 2004 opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. A ceremonial groundbreaking has been set for Feb. 22 for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, while fundraising continues for the project.
The $500 million museum is planned for a site near the Washington Monument, and organizers have said it's on track to open in 2015. The Smithsonian must raise about half the cost for what will be its 19th museum, while Congress has pledged to provide the other half of the funding. An advisory board supporting the effort includes former first lady Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones and others.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough noted a $75 million allocation from Congress this year will keep the project on track. He said it's a project that comes at a "very difficult time in the federal budget" but has garnered strong support from Congress and dating back to the Bush administration.
Legislation also is pending in Congress that calls for the creation of a Smithsonian American Latino Museum on the Mall. A bill introduced in November would house the museum at the historic Arts and Industries Building, which is now vacant and is being partially renovated to stabilize the 131-year-old structure.
Creation of that museum is far from certain, though. Some in Congress have opposed building individual ethnic museums, saying they appeal to segregated audiences, rather than presenting a "melting pot" history of immigration and migration that formed the nation.
Clough said such a museum would fit nicely with the Smithsonian's mission.
"If Congress decides that museum should be built, we certainly want to be the institution that carries that forward because we think we can do it well," he said, noting the location may take some study. "It's all doable, but it's not going to be cheap. And it will take time."
The Smithsonian is developing its first institution-wide capital campaign to increase private support. Congress provides about 70 percent of the Smithsonian's budget, but funds for programs and exhibits must be raised privately.
Clough announced Monday that the complex had surpassed its 2011 goal of raising $175 million by securing $182 million in private donations.
Cordova will also play a role in managing the Smithsonian's relationship with Congress as head of the 17-member Board of Regents, which includes members of the House and Senate. She has served on the Smithsonian Board of Regents since 2009.
Cordova succeeds Patty Stonesifer, a former Microsoft executive and chief executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Stonesifer has served as chairwoman since 2009 and will become vice chair of the board.
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