Report: Smithsonian Museum Director Commissioned $48,500 Portrait of Himself

The founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian spent $48,500 in museum funds to commission a portrait of himself, a newspaper reported.

The portrait of W. Richard West Jr. by New York artist Burton Silverman hangs in the patrons' lounge on the fourth floor of the Smithsonian Institution museum, which is dedicated to the arts and culture of American Indians.

No other museum directors have commissioned portraits of themselves, Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas told The Washington Post in a study published Friday. West authorized the expenditure for the portrait, completed in 2005, after consulting with some members of the museum's advisory board, St. Thomas said.

Silverman, of Polish descent, was chosen after the Smithsonian "couldn't find a Native artist who did formal portrait sittings like this," St. Thomas said. Silverman completed a smaller portrait of former Smithsonian secretary Robert McCormick Adams about a decade earlier that cost about half as much.

West, a 64-year-old Harvard-trained historian and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, was hired in 1989 to oversee planning for the flagship museum and retired last month. His expenses have come under scrutiny following recent reports that he spent more than $250,000 in the past four years on first-class transportation and luxury hotels.

West could not be reached for comment about the portrait. In an interview with the Post last week, he said all his trips were authorized.

Two U.S. senators have called for independent investigations of West's spending. And the Smithsonian Board of Regents has removed West from the committee to select a new Smithsonian secretary pending a review of West's travel. Former secretary Lawrence Small resigned in March after questions were raised about his compensation and spending.

"It appears that Mr. West was determined to meet Mr. Small's champagne lifestyle, glass for glass," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a letter Thursday to the board. Grassley has been critical of the Smithsonian's oversight and business practices.

Kevin Gover, who took over as the Indian Museum's director early last month, defended West's travel costs in an e-mail to the museum's advisory board.

"While ... I will not maintain the kind of travel itinerary that Rick did, I would not presume to question his judgment as to whether his travel was in the best interests of the Museum," he said.