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Cooper Hewitt director and six trustees resign over wedding controversy

Conflicts of Interest

Cooper Hewitt director and six trustees resign over wedding controversy

The director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York stepped down after an investigation arose over the logistics of her 2018 wedding. (xiquinhosilva/Flickr)

Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, resigned from her post last week after internal controversy arose over her 2018 wedding. According to The New York Times, an investigation conducted by the Smithsonian’s inspector general dove into the amount of money Baumann paid for a custom-made wedding dress, as well as the procurement of her East Hampton, New York, wedding venue—both acquired through potential conflicts of interest in the eyes of the design museum’s governing body. 

Some background: All museums under the Smithsonian umbrella are partially funded by the United States government and, like all government jobs, its employee code of conduct states that “employees shall not solicit or accept any gift from any source that is, or appears to be, offered because the employee holds a Smithsonian position or may have influence within the Smithsonian.” The probe into Baumann’s wedding began after an anonymous staff complaint was filed over concerns on two aspects of Baumann’s nuptials.

Image of woman in yellow dress giving speech
Baumann has been with Cooper Hewitt since 2001. (Courtesy World Economic Forum)

In September 2018, Baumann married branding consultant John Stewart Malcolmson in a $750 silver wedding dress which investigating agents believed, according to NYT, to be a heavily-discounted price that she negotiated using her status as head of Cooper Hewitt. According to Brooklyn-based designer Samantha Sleeper who made the piece, she did not give Baumann a discount nor did Baumann request a discount, even though her dresses start at a rate of $3,000. Sleeper denied the claim that Baumann used her status to procure the gown and insisted the low-dollar amount was standard for the cocktail-style dress which she had purchased.

The other issue the agents looked into involved where Baumann and Malcolmson held their wedding; a 16-acre sculpture garden on Long Island founded by textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen. The property, LongHouse Reserve, won a Cooper Hewitt Award in 2015. Per multiple sources, Larsen and Baumann are good friends and he offered up the site for her to use free of charge. NYT noted that Larsen’s nonprofit of the same name has freely used Cooper Hewitt conference rooms for board meetings, an exchange that also drummed up concern within the Smithsonian.  

Baumann reportedly stepped back from her directorial role over the claims, despite opposition from the museum’s board of trustees. In the aftermath, six of its 27 members resigned over the weekend from their posts, including architect David Rockwell. NYT reported that artist Judy Francis Zankel, the board secretary, wrote in her resignation letter that the way Baumann was treated “violates every principle of decency.” 

“I feel that remaining on the board tacitly condones this behavior,” she continued.

Zankel went on to question whether there was a “touch of misogyny” in Baumann’s forced ousting. “Can you imagine all this brouhaha about a dress and a wedding directed toward a man in the same position?” 

Installation photo of The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility
Baumann was responsible for bringing the museum and its exhibitions into the 21st century. Shown here: Installation view of the 2019 show, The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility (Courtesy Cooper Hewitt)

The specifics of these accusations are especially confusing given Baumann’s success within the institution since she started working there in 2001. After being appointed director in 2013, Baumann supervised the museum’s rebranding by Pentagram and oversaw the $91 million renovation of its Carnegie Mansion home by Gluckman Mayner Architects and Beyer Blinder Belle. Diller Scofidio + Renfro completed its internal exhibition design in 2014 and the following year, the museum’s Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden reopened to the public. The massive project resulted in widespread praise for the 123-year-old institution.

Over email, the museum confirmed Baumann’s departure and announced Dr. John Davis, Smithsonian Provost, as Cooper Hewitt’s interim director: “Baumann has been a passionate voice for design, and much was accomplished during her tenure.”