Smithsonian Business Ventures CEO Leaves Under Fire

According to a published report in the Washington Post, Gary M. Beer, the chief executive officer of Smithsonian Business Ventures (SBV), announced this week that he would not seek to renew his contract when it expires this coming September.

Beer’s departure comes on the heels of the resignation in March of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small. Beer was brought down by many of the same business practices that led to Small’s departure, such as questionable expenses and charges of excessive compensation. However, the Post article detailed allegations that Beer had a personal relationship with a subordinate who received five promotions and four raises over the last six years.

Beer will probably best be remembered for the controversial partnership he created with the Showtime Networks, Inc. In March 2006, the Smithsonian announced that it had entered into a 30-year, semi-exclusive contract with Showtime to create a digital on-demand television channel. Members of Congress and other stakeholders, including the National Coalition for History, raised issues concerning the contract’s potential effects on public access to and use of the Smithsonian’s collections, its confidential nature, and the process by which the Smithsonian negotiated the agreement.

Besides the fledgling television channel, SBV is made up of several business units: Magazines; Retail (museum stores, concessions, movie theaters); Catalogues; Licensing; Publishing; and Travel (Smithsonian Journeys). The financial performance of SBV had been criticized in a report issued in January by the Smithsonian’s Inspector General. The report found that SBV’s financial contribution to the Smithsonian, in real dollars, had declined since Beer began his tenure.

Earlier this week, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, had sent the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents a lengthy letter requesting information concerning Beer’s alleged relationship with his subordinate, excessive expenses and compensation, and the financial performance of SBV. Upon Beer’s announcement that he was leaving SBV, Senator Grassley issued a statement that said, “It looks like the leaders of Smithsonian Business Ventures were living like Thurston Howell and managing like Gilligan.”