Caroline Baumann, who was pushed into resigning from her job as director of New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum earlier this month, is firing back against allegations that she violated the institution’s conflict of interest policy.
Following an anonymous complaint by a staff member, the Smithsonian launched an investigation into Baumann’s 2018 wedding, and whether or not she had used her influence as the museum’s director to get a discount on her dress and a free venue for the event at the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton.
The inspector general’s office investigated and concluded that Baumann had been “using her Smithsonian position for private gain,” according to its report. As a result, Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch II asked Baumann to tender her resignation.
But now Baumann claims she was never given an opportunity to discuss the report’s conclusions or defend herself. “The agent at the center of this [investigation] used derogatory, sexist language; he was overtly discriminatory to me and to others, and produced a sham report,” Baumann said in a statement provided to Artnet News.
Baumann says that she held her wedding at the LongHouse Reserve because she close friends with its founder, Jack Lenor Larsen, a relationship that predates her tenure at the Cooper Hewitt.
The LongHouse Reserve charges as much as $25,000 to host an event, but Baumann points out that her wedding was held without a tent and catering, and took place on a Monday afternoon in front of just 40 guests, including Larsen, before moving offsite for the dinner.
Baumann was accused of providing a meeting room for the LongHouse Reserve at the Cooper-Hewitt in exchange for the wedding venue. But where the report claims that the museum normally charges upwards of $30,000 for such access, Baumann contends that the Cooper Hewitt routinely lets nonprofits with which it has a close relationship use its facilities free of charge.
The inspector general’s report also took issue with a New York Times wedding announcement story, saying it was inappropriate to involve museum staff, who sent emails in connection with the article, on personal matters. Baumann claims she had been advised by a museum publicity consultant to make her personal life more visible.
Then there was the matter of Baumann’s $750 wedding dress from Brooklyn designer Samantha Sleeper, who charges $3,000 and up for custom gowns. Baumann denies asking for a discount and Sleeper told the New York Times that she charged the standard amount for a simple cocktail dress, and says she told the inspector as much.
In response, the agent allegedly asked if Baumann was a “bitch” or a “Devil Wears Prada type.” Afterward, Sleeper emailed the inspector general’s office, relaying concerns that the investigator seemed biased against Baumann.
Sleeper was later invited to the Cooper Hewitt’s annual gala, where Baumann again wore the dress. But where the inspector contended that the dinner ticket was worth $1,700, and was offered in trade, Baumann offered a simple explanation. Corporate sponsors purchase tables, but don’t fill all the seats, allowing the museum to extend perhaps 100 invitations to emerging designers, staff members, and journalists, among others.
The report also noted that Baumann hired her then boyfriend, now husband, John Stewart Malcolmson, for a freelance graphic design job with the museum. The investigator determined that Baumann should have disclosed their relationship on a form filed with the office of contracting.
Baumann contends that she received approval beforehand from the office and the museum’s CFO in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety. The form, she explains, is for family members, and she and Malcolmson were not yet married and maintained separate finances. She added that the museum hired Malcolmson because the in-house designer was on maternity leave and other firms were unable to meet the project’s short deadline. He was paid $5,000, which she claims is a standard fee for a job of its nature.
“This report,” said Baumann’s lawyer, Luke Nikas, in an email to Artnet News, “contains frivolous accusations that we will easily disprove with the documents and the witnesses involved.”
In support of Baumann, who shepherded the museum through a major $91 million renovation project completed in 2014, six board trustees have resigned. The Smithsonian declined to comment, citing that it was a personnel matter.
“This is ripping the board and Cooper Hewitt apart,” said Baumann. “I appreciate the deep loyalty of the board, and it is painful for me to see the significant damage that is being done to what we’ve built over the last two decades.”
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.